A weekend double-header saw Hemel Storm slay the Bradford Dragons – and book their place in the National League Division One Play-Offs.
Post-season play was mathematically secured after Sunday’s 87-80 victory over the Bradford Dragons.
It came a day after they had narrowly fell to a quality Manchester Magic side, 96-103.
Storm fought off a late Dragons’ rally on Sunday to cement their place in the end-of-season knock-out tournament and now all that remains to be decided is who their opponent will be.
After the loss to the Magic, the league’s third-placed team, Storm knew they had to win one of their remaining games, either against Bradford on Sunday or at home versus Derby Trailblazers the following week to clinch a Play-Off berth.
Storm’s Nik Rhodes made two crucial steals and lay-ups to ignite an 8-0 game-winning run in the closing minutes against Bradford to seal the victory.
The eight-man Bradford home team erased an early 14-point Storm advantage and when Bradford’s Rihards Sulcs hit a jump-shot in the final period to give his team a 71-68 lead, it triggered a stunning defensive stand by Hemel to hold the Dragons scoreless for three whole minutes.
Rhodes’ defensive thievery, a Khapri Alston dunk and nerveless Carl Josey free-throws then pushed the Storm lead out to nine points.
Storm head coach David Allin, who has led Hemel to a strong end-of-season push with seven wins in the last 10 contests and ward off concerns about potential relegation, said: “Our primary goal this weekend was to win at least one of the games and secure a Play-Off spot and we are thrilled to have done that.
“A couple of months ago we had concerns about relegation.
“We’ve now put ourselves in a position where we’re not only safe but now will be competing for a national title in post-season play.
“That’s a tremendous achievement for the club and I’ll be pretty certain that the top teams will not fancy playing us in a one-off game.”
In Bradford, Wayne Yeboah was once again Hemel’s glue, making key defensive plays and eventually top-scoring with a hard-earned 20 points.
The Yorkshire side took the first quarter 22-21 in a fast-paced, uncompromising clash.
But with Yeboah working hard on the boards and his teammates firing on all cylinders – including two three-pointers from Jack Burnell – Storm took control and threatened to open a commanding lead.
But it was not to be as some defensive lapses and late scores from Dragons’ Rafie Saipe and Dwayne Camille closed the gap to 45-37 at the half.
Bradford started the third period the stronger side and had the best of the period, closing Storm’s advantage to 63-60 before taking the lead to set-up the intense closing moments.
As in many games this season Hemel, the second-best rebounding team in the country, won the battle of the boards 35-22 and shot at an impressive 52 per cent success rate from the field.
There were signs of Hemel’s fighting spirit the night before against a powerful Manchester team.
Having been unable to contain the Magic’s fast-breaks and outstanding shooting, Storm went into the locker room at half-time 20 points adrift, 57-37.
But led by their powerful American centre Alston and much-improved defence, Storm refused to lay down and by the end of the third period had chipped away to close the gap to 77-63.
In the last five minutes Manchester were forced to call a time-out when the margin was cut to single figures.
“We achieved some of what we planned to do against Manchester,” said Allin. “But we gave up too many fast-break points in the first-half and although we got close, we couldn’t recover.”
The format for the knockout Play-Offs tournament sees the eight teams seeded with the No 1 seed playing No 8, No 2 v No 7 and son on.
There is a mathematical chance that Storm could finish seventh but in all likelihood they will clinch the eighth berth which means they face a stern test in the opening round on the road against the league champions Team Northumbria, who clinched the title at the weekend.
However Storm will be heartened by their recent match against those same opponents. Although they lost in a battling 87-98 effort on March 4 in Hemel, they challenged Northumbria on every possession and only some defensive lapses on Hemel’s part and outstanding shooting eventually got Northumbria the win.
The first round of the Play-Offs will be scheduled over the weekend of April 1/2.
Storm team and scorers v Manchester: Alston 30, Rhodes 17, Yeboah 15, Josey 11, Mumuni 11, Adorian 6, Darlow 4, Kearney 2, Allin N, Burnell.
Storm v Bradford: Yeboah 20, Darlow 15, Mumuni 14, Rhodes 12, Burnell 8, Josey 6, Alston 6, Allin N 2, Kearney 2, Adorian 2.
Storm’s next game – their last National League Division One game of the season – is this Saturday (tip-off 7pm) at Sportspace against Derby Trailblazers.
For tickets, visit www.stormbasketball.net.