Hemel Storm took a big step towards qualification for the end-of-season Championship playoffs with a battling 95-85 win over Kent Crusaders at Sportspace on Saturday.
With two games to play – both at home this weekend – Storm are in seventh place in the National League Division One table and must finish in the top eight to reach the post-season.
The scores were knotted at 65-65 after three periods on Saturday before Storm, as in previous games this season, produced a stifling fourth quarter defensive effort to overhaul the visitors.
Inspired by the individual brilliance of top scorer Wayne Yeboah, who sank 15 of his 19 points in the last quarter, Hemel held Kent to 20 points while adding 30 of their own to seal a crunch victory.
Storm had lost to the Crusaders 76-79 in the reverse fixture and the visitors came to Hemel having added to their roster 6ft 6ins British guard Kalil Irving, who previously played professionally in the BBL and Italy. But Irving was targeted by Storm’s intense defence and held scoreless in 19 minutes of play.
In-form Kent, who won their last three contests, opened the game with back-to-back triples and kept pace with the hosts although they struggled to contain Hemel’s 7ft centre Lee Greenan (19 points, nine rebounds) and trailed 28-23 after the first quarter.
In the second quarter Kent quickly made up the difference as they found their touch from long range, sinking five three-pointers to take a 49-48 lead into the second half.
It was more of the same after the break as Crusaders’ Caleb Fuller (30 points, six rebounds) seemed to take over the game and when he sank two free-throws the visitors led by eight, 63-55, and Hemel needed a time-out to regroup.
Storm responded well to claw back the deficit and a three-pointer from their American guard AJ Roberts (18 points, six rebounds) closed the stanza with the scores tied at 65-65 going into the last 10 minutes.
Hemel took the game by the scruff of the neck in the fourth period as their fired-up defence and aggressive attacks triggered a match-winning burst that at one point saw them open an 83-72 advantage on a Mike Darlow three-pointer.
Darlow had earlier stolen the ball and after driving the length of the court to dunk, fell awkwardly. The crowd was momentarily silenced but applauded as the 6ft 6ins forward was helped to his feet.
Storm coach Robert Youngblood said: “We went away in the second period and early in the third from how we had prepared to play.
“This was a big game for us and at times I didn’t think we showed enough commitment at the defensive end of the court.
“We should have had a playoff mentality from the tip-off.
“But then the fourth period happened and we got ourselves back on track.
“The guys were fantastic behind Wayne’s individual outstanding effort.”
Hemel had a chance to further distance themselves from the chasing pack on Sunday but a depleted and injury-hit Storm lost 82 -71 away to Leicester Warriors in a disjointing game.
The clash was spoiled for the spectators by over-zealous officiating, including six technical fouls in a poorly-managed spectacle.
Storm’s offence dried-up in the final stanza and they recorded only 11 points as they struggled to break down Leicester’s defence.
However, Yeboah continued his good form from the day before as he paced Hemel with 17 points, supported by 15 from Jack Burnell.
Team and scorers v Kent Crusaders: Wayne Yeboah 19, Lee Greenan 19, AJ Roberts 18, Courtney Van-Beest 11, Bode Adeluola 9, Mike Darlow 8, Jack Burnell 5, Chuck Duru 4, Walid Mumuni 2, Ladi Brown, Rhyce Donegal, Tom Adorian and David Ajumobi.
Team and scorers v Leicester Warriors: Yeboah 17, Burnell 15, Adorian 12, Greenan 8, Roberts 8, Mumuni 6, Adeluola 4, Brown 1, Duru, Van-Beest, Darlow and Ajumobi.
Storm play their final two league games at Sportspace this weekend.
On Saturday the league’s second-placed side Solent Kestrels are the visitors (tip-off 7pm).
On Sunday, at the earlier tip-off time of 1.30pm, Storm face bottom-but-one side Derby Trailblazers.
For tickets or further details, visit the website www.stormbasketball.net.