Melbourne United has answered every challenge thrown down by the Cairns Taipans to show why they are the early-season front-runner in the NBL.
United came away with an 89-80 win before a raucous home crowd that was kept on their edge of their seats until the dying seconds at Hisense Arena on Saturday night.
United holds an impressive 5-0 record and top spot on the ladder, but the Taipans are a force in this competition and last season’s grand finalists were not going to let the home side have it all their own way.
The trouble for the Taipans was the handy buffer United was able to compile by half time. For all of their courage in the second half, they simply could not eat into a margin that consistently swayed between six to 12 points in United’s favour for the rest of the night.
The Taipans did well to stretch the last quarter out, getting to within five points with 53 seconds left on the clock, but like they had done all night, United found a way to restore their lead.
So often it was on the back of birthday boy Chris Goulding.
The 27-year-old fittingly put the icing on the cake of United’s victory with a transition dunk that lifted the crowd to its feet.
Goulding showed his full repertoire on the night to finish with 26 points.
The 2014 NBL scoring leader was not shy from long range, dropping four three-pointers. He also attacked the basket with a real zest and was happy to share the ball to build up play for teammates.
An entertainer, Goulding knows where the cameras and he plays up for them. He oozes confidence, talking the talk between plays, but backing it up with substance in the game.
Simply put, Goulding is worth the admission price alone.
When the final buzzer sounded and the court announcer raced towards him for a post-game interview, Goulding was quick to point out that his United side runs “13 deep”.
“Everyone is going to step up on a different night,” he said.
And he’s right.
United’s greatest strength over the opening five games has been its ability to share the work load.
If one man is down, another picks him up.
They have quickly been able to identify each other’s strengths and it has resulted in some breathtaking basketball.
It must be heartening for United coach Dean Demopoulos that almost every rotation he is putting out onto court is getting the job done.
Earlier in the week against Townsville, Demopoulos emptied the bench in the third quarter and kept his starters fresh for the Taipans challenge.
This time, he stuck with his top eight players, and needed to with the Taipans posing a serious threat.
One man who benefited from the mid-week rest was star import Hakim Warrick.
Warrick was only needed for five minutes against the Crocs, so he was fresh as a daisy to post 11 points and 11 rebounds.
At times, Warrick, a former NBA journeyman, would draw the double team, but he used his big league experience to negotiate a way out of tricky situations and find a way to the hoop, making it look easy when it was anything but.
Stephen Holt was superb once again, hitting 19 points, including two first quarter three-pointers that got the United engine humming.
Majok Majok was a menace on the defensive end to finish with 11 points and 10 rebounds in 21 minutes.
Daniel Kickert came to life at important moments with 12 points and eight rebounds, Todd Blanchfield produced a no-fuss 10 points and Nate Tomlinson did some good things at the point.
The never-say-die Taipans impressed with their speedy ball movement and ability to bring others into play.
Torrey Craig was the biggest threat for the visitors with 18 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks, while Stephen Weigh (14 points) and Cameron Gliddon (12 points) threatened late.
Matt Burston’s foul trouble and the eventual fouling out of Mark Worthington hurt the Taipans down the stretch.
United is back at Hisense Arena on Thursday night for a battle with second-placed Perth Wildcats from 7.30pm.
Tickets are available from www.melbourneutd.com.au.
Melbourne United 89 (Goulding 26, Holt 19, Kickert 12) d Cairns Taipans 80 (Craig 18, Weigh 14, Gliddon 12)
Star Weekly’s top three …
Chris Goulding: A long way ahead of the rest, putting on a show for his birthday, finding various avenues to score en route to 26 points.
Stephen Holt: Played a combo guard role, sparking the team with crafty passing and scoring with efficiency.
Hakim Warrick: The athletic big man was challenged physically but got on with the job to finish with a well-earned double-double.