A massive weight has been lifted off the shoulders of everyone at Melbourne United after a stirring five-point win over ladder leaders Perth Wildcats in the NBL’s open air game at a packed Hisense Arena on Sunday night.
United was starting to take on the look of a desperate team after a run of three straight losses and not merely because its prime spot in the top-four was coming under threat.
Confidence was beginning to wane with the good early-season form drying up, vulnerabilities were being exposed and questions raised over how much juice they have left in the tank.
United needed the scalp of a contender to validate their lofty position on the ladder after a brutal run of form and they do not come much bigger in this league than the Wildcats with a 92-87 victory just the tonic to get United back moving in the right direction.
“We haven’t won much lately and that’s the No. 1 team in the league,” United coach Dean Demopoulos said.
“Good game for us, good win, it’s always good to beat No. 1.
“We were thirsty for a win. These guys have been working the same as we worked earlier so it’s good for them to get a little candy for their efforts.”
United’s thirst quencher will go down as one of the matches of the season.
The two heavyweight sides went back and forth for 40 minutes with little to separate.
United found the fight that was lacking in recent weeks, it was unwavering for the duration of the game and it had to be.
Each time the Wildcats threatened to make a run that could take the game away from the home side, United answered back and reminded the rest of the competition that it was still alive in the title race.
“What I liked about our team tonight is they looked like they enjoyed the fight,” Demopoulos said. “For me that was a real important thing to see. They brought the juice tonight and it was pretty consistent.”
United had the better of the first half, racing out to a 55-46 lead at the midway point.
Wildcats coach Trevor Gleeson bemoaned his side’s lack of defensive pressure in the first half and it was telling in United’s numbers with the hosts shooting a sublime 61% from the field and 54% from the three-point arc in the first two periods.
Chris Goulding, the most valuable player on the night with 27 points with six threes, was flawless in the first half with 17 points on five-from-five from the field and four threes.
But Goulding played less than four minutes in the third period and the Wildcats took advantage with the star off the court, erasing an 11-point deficit on the back of an increased defensive intensity.
Wildcats guard Casey Prather (24 points) was finding holes in the United defence and getting to the free throw line regularly with 11-from-13 from the stripe, while teammates Matt Knight (19 points and 10 rebounds), Nathan Jawai (15 points, four rebounds and three assists) and Damian Martin (four steals) made big plays for the visitors.
United, thanks to a menacing post presence from import Hakim Warrick, who had a double-doubled with 14 points and 11 rebounds, and a strong game at both ends from Daniel Kickert, who blocked four shots to go with 14 points, managed to take a five-point lead into the fourth period.
The last quarter was again full of ebbs and flows, but when it came to closing out the game, United looked to point guard Stephen Holt, who was money from the free throw line, going six-from-six when the heat was well and truly to finish with 16 points and seven assists.
It was far from a perfect United game: they turned the ball over 14 times with some silly errors in between, whether it be Todd Blanchfield stepping on the sideline under no pressure with a three-pointer beckoning, Brad Hill inbounding the ball without taking it behind the baseline or Kickert with a lane violation, but they dusted themselves off and got on with the next play and the task of bringing about the downfall of a tough opponent.
“These guys flipped the switch, turned the page, flushed the toilet, all kinds of things, whatever you want to call it, and went on to the next play and that’s indicative of a winning basketball team when that happens consistently,” Demopoulos said.
The weather stayed dry for United to successfully stage its open air game.
Goulding shot the lights out for most of the night so he was not complaining of any change in the conditions and his teammates took to social media to give the occasion a big thumbs up.
“It turned out to be a really good night,” he said. “Credit to the NBL, credit to our front office staff, we must have a weather man in the ranks, he picked a great night.
“A couple of days after Christmas, a big crowd, throw everything into the pot, mix it up, it was a really big game man, so I’m glad we won. I think it was a really good night for basketball in this city.”
United will be seeking revenge when they face the Sydney Kings at the Sydney Olympic Park Sports Centre on Wednesday night.
NBL – Round 12
Melbourne United 92 (Goulding 27, Warrick 16, Holt 16) d Perth Wildcats 87 (Prather 24, Knight 19, Jawai 15).
Star Weekly’s best …
Chris Golding (United): The swagger was back as he thrived on the big occasion to score an efficient 27 points.
Hakim Warrick (United): Clearly not in Melbourne for a holiday, the big-name import worked harder than any player on the court and was rewarded with a double-double.
Damian Martin (Wildcats): Like a mouse in the house with four steals to energise his team’s late push.