Hemel Storm started 2019 with two thrilling victories at the weekend to extend their winning streak to three games after losing seven of their previous eight clashes.
They beat Derby Trailblazers 98-92 in a National League Division One away game on Saturday and then tamed a talented Essex Leopards side 96-95 on Sunday in front of a packed crowd at Hemel Leisure Centre in a National Trophy pool game.
Leopards’ impressive American import Asante Sandiford, who had scored 37 points in the game, was awarded two free-throws with just 0.6 of a second left and his team trailing by a point.
The noise from the Storm fans was deafening as the American stepped up to the line. His first shot hit the side of the basket and bounced out, while his second grazed the front of the rim. The ball was gratefully grabbed by Storm’s 6ft 9ins centre Tom Adorian as the crowd erupted.
Sunday’s National Trophy pool win was achieved without Storm’s starting point guard Bode Adeluola, who was injured in Derby the previous night, or his back-up Ian Berry, so head coach Robert Youngblood relied on the experienced former Great Britain international Levi Noel to orchestrate the offence.
Noel responded brilliantly, throwing eight assists and nailing the crucial go-ahead three-pointer that secured the win.
And in two outstanding team performances Storm’s scoring hero was Blayne Freckleton, who sank 35 points in each game, including 13 triples at a stunning combined average success rate of 58 per cent.
He also led his team’s rebounding against Derby with 11 boards.
The efforts prompted Basketball England to give Freckleton the National Basketball League Division One player of the week award.
A delighted coach Youngblood said: “It was a great weekend for us, a real team effort from everyone.
“Winning is a habit, that’s three in a row now and you can be sure that we’ll be working hard to keep it going.
“The guys executed the game plan against Derby to perfection and we closed the game out well, whereas before Christmas we’d struggled in similar situations.
“Against Essex, better second-half defence and rebounding were the keys.
“In the end, we out-rebounded them 51-45. We also gave up 20 points fewer than in the first-half so after fighting back from the half-time deficit we were able to win the third quarter 26-19 and tie the last period.”
Hemel’s win against Leopards meant they finished joint top of their National Trophy pool in a tie with Reading Rockets, but the Berkshire outfit advances to the semi-finals as a result of the head-to-head record against Storm.
On Saturday Hemel exploded offensively in the first period as Freckleton hit six of his game-high seven three-pointers and Leome Francis – returning to his former club – controlled the rebounding.
With help from his teammates, Francis was able to shackle Trailblazers’ American star and NBL standout Malcolm Smith, who eventually finished with a below average 17 points.
Hemel led 31-20 after the first period and 60 -47 at half-time.
In a more even second-half sixth-placed Derby’s pressing defence caused problems for the visitors and coupled with some defensive lapses by Hemel, the home team were allowed to get near to parity, 86-87, with just four minutes to play.
But Storm held their nerve.
A jump shot by Bode Adeluola, Freckleton’s seventh three-pointer and a Francis power lay-up re-established Hemel’s lead and they sealed victory with free-throws from Noel and Francis.
On Sunday, Hemel’s sluggish perimeter defence and poor rebounding in the first-half allowed Essex to get on top 57-51 by the end of the second period, but Storm switched their defensive strategy for a few of Leopards’ early possessions in the third period and the visitors’ attacks came up empty while Hemel ran off 10 straight points.
Noel, Francis and Adorian all found the basket to give Storm a 61-57 edge and force a Leopards’ time-out.
The teams traded baskets and went into the final period with Essex 77-76 ahead.
No more than three points separated the squads and with less than a minute to play the visitors’ Lee Hodges, who was on Storm’s National Cup-winning squad last season, hit a lay-up for his new team to snatch a 95-93 lead.
But on the next possession a momentary mix-up in the Essex defence left Hemel’s Noel with space to fire a three-pointer, the veteran guard’s shot splashing through the basket to restore his team’s lead at 96-95 and set-up the game’s dramatic climax.
Storm’s associate head coach Dave Titmuss said afterwards: “Our fans – the StormTroopers – were fantastic, they truly were our sixth man.
“There’s no question they’re the best in the country.
“It was an important win for us, we’re carrying injuries and having to make adjustments on the fly.
“We’ve struggled in the first half of the season to win close games so the victories at the weekend are added motivation to work harder and smarter to become a better team.”
Storm team and scorers v Derby: Blayne Freckleton 35, Leome Francis 18, Bode Adeluola 16, Levi Noel 12, Jack Burnell 11, Leon Henry 4, Tom Adorian 2, Jamie Hayes, Sam Dunscombe, Tom Martin, Shaquille Lewis.
Storm team and scorers v Essex: Blayne Freckleton 35, Leome Francis 22, Levi Noel 13, Tom Adorian 8, Shaquille Lewis 7, Jack Burnell 6, Leon Henry 5, Tom Martin, Sam Dunscombe.
Saturday’s win pushed Hemel’s league record to 3-8 and they are in 12th place in the 14-team league. But just six points separates them from the last playoff place.
Storm’s next game is in the league against Thames Valley Cavaliers (7-4, 5th) at Hemel Leisure Centre on Saturday, January 19 (tip-off 7pm). For tickets or more details, visit www.stormbasketball.net.