Let the exploration begin at Melbourne United.

United was horribly out-of-character in an 82-78 loss to the last-placed Townsville Crocodiles in the NBL at Hisense Arena on Friday night, but a bit of adversity will give coach Dean Demopoulos a chance to find out what his team is made of when the hard questions are asked of them.

“I’m really looking forward to finding out a bit more about us as a group,” the first year coach said. “This is where you find stuff out more than anything else and I’m looking forward to finding out what I suspect is true, that they’re a group of quality individuals that will face adversity and do their best to get through it.”

The rot set in early for United with a sloppy opening period and the Crocodiles played the remainder of the game on their own terms.

United was lethargic on defence and too one-dimensional in offence, with long range shooting their first and second option before considering the inside route. They were held to just 31 points in a terrible first half.

Most concerning for United was their lack of hustle for 50-50 balls. However, it would be totally disrespectful not to applaud what the Crocodiles brought to Melbourne, who executed the perfect smash-and-grab mission.

United has a short two day turnaround before Sunday’s clash with the New Zealand Breakers in Auckland.

They did salvage a little bit out of the wreckage before crossing the ditch, refusing to throw in the towel and out-scoring the visitors 27-13 in the fourth period to make it a tight finish.

“Our guys didn’t give in,” Demopoulos said. “But, we dug ourselves a little bit of a hole that was a bit too large and didn’t have the juice to get it back.”

Having trailed by 18 at three quarter time, United rallied late to trim the deficit to three points.

With five seconds of play to go in the fourth and down by three, United star Chris Goulding strangely opted against taking a three, drawing a foul on a drive to the hoop.

Goulding missed his second free throw and the Crocodiles iced the game from the line through Clint Steindl to give guard Mitch Norton a fitting end to his 100th NBL game.

“They shot the ball really well, they beat us to the ball most of the time, they appeared to play harder,” Demopoulos said. “I’m not surprised by it at all. Everyone in this league is capable of beating everyone else, not on a given day, on any day.

“That’s what happens when you get outplayed, you lose normally.”

Individually, United went through peaks and troughs across the board. No one player could say they were locked in for the whole 40 minutes.

Goulding scored a game-high 22 points, including five three-pointers.

Forward Daniel Kickert scored 17 points to go with seven rebounds, but only really came to life down the stretch.

Point guard Stephen Holt was electrifying in the second half to finish with 15 points, eight assists and five rebounds.

Townsville had winners all over the court. Although undermanned, they even won the bench battle.

Without reigning MVP Brian Conklin and Luke Schenscher, all the Crocs players chipped in to do their bit, with centre Nicholas Kay shining the brightest with 14 points, nine rebounds and three assists.

Norton, who said he “could not have drawn up” a better milestone celebration, had a team-high 15 points.

Crocodiles coach Shawn Dennis pointed to road victories over United and the Perth Wildcats to prove his young team is heading in the right direction.

“To me it just shows the quality of these kids coming through,” he said. “We purposely put this group together to build for the future and that’s why we’ve just asked people to be a little bit patient.

“We’re going to keep fighting and playing hard. For us to get a win in Melbourne and a win in Perth, they’re two big scalps because I don’t think either of those teams will lose a lot at home.”

NBL – Round 7

Melbourne United 78 (Goulding 22, Kickert 17, Holt 15) lost to Townsville Crocodiles 82 (Norton 15, Kay 14, Steindl 13).

Star Weekly’s best …

Nicholas Kay (Crocs): Stepped up in the absence of reigning MVP Brian Conklin and Luke Schenscher. Super efficient on the shot. A great mixture of finesse and hustle to be the best player in the paint on the night.

Mitch Norton (Crocs): Made it hard not to put him in the best because of his lively performance in his 100th game. Made the defence look slow on occasions with his attacking moves.

Stephen Holt (United): The tide started to turn on the back of Holt’s hustle plays on both ends. Had a huge second half where he found his own shot and brought others into play with eight assists.