A magnificent performance from American AJ Roberts helped push Hemel Storm to a 94-77 victory in the NBL National Cup Final. Manchester never really found an answer for Roberts who scored at will throughout periods of the Final to finish with 33 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds and 6 steals.
Magic started the contest brightly and raced out to a 31-19 lead after the 1st quarter. From there, Hemel set about reeling in their opponents and by the middle of the 3rd, Storm has a double digit advantage of their own. Roared on by vocal support and with Roberts putting the finishing touches on his MVP performance, Hemel never looked back as the eased to a comfortable win.
With a very partisan local crowd, Hemel could easily have been labelled as the home team in this one as they also benefitted from a significant backing of Essex and Ipswich fans that remained from the Women’s Final. Still, Manchester showed an early poise that has helped them win so many times on this kind of stage and that did plenty to quieten the bleachers.
Hemel’s Lee Greenan and Manchester’s Lee Goldsbrough began the opening acts of a physical battle down low that would continue throughout the contest, but it was Magic’s Michael Anumba who had the best of the 1st quarter to drop 13 points and establish a lead for his team. Captain Stefan Gill added 10 of his own, connecting twice from beyond the arc to leave Manchester up 31-19 after 1.
Manchester's Michael Anumba finished with 17 points and 4 assists
With the North West side coming into the contest with 9 players, there was always the possibility that they would begin to tire at some stage. Manchester maintained their double digit advantage for the opening minutes of the 2nd, but then momentum changed. Back to back 3’s for Hemel, first from Walid Mumuni and then from Jack Burnell brought the Storm within striking distance.
With Anumba going scoreless in the quarter and Gill now struggling to find his range, Manchester had to turn to Ryan Lewis. He produced some quality in the low post to help push his side’s lead back up a little, but Magic turnovers proved costly in the closing minutes of the half. With Hemel’s Courtney Van Beest working hardest in the final seconds, the 6’6” forward was able to pull down a couple of consecutive offensive boards before finally converting a tip in on the buzzer to leave the game at 47-45 Manchester by half time.
Goldsbrough opened the 3rd well for Manchester and his battle with Greenan continued to heat up. Unfortunately for Hemel, their influential centre picked up his 4th foul which sent him to the bench. That was the cue for both teams to increase their defensive effort and for the next few minutes it was a struggle for either side to make a telling contributions on the scoreboard. That was all about to change though with a devastating contribution from AJ Roberts.
The talented guard only had 8 points to his name midway through the 3rd, but as Hemel slowly eased into the lead, Roberts took over. A deep ball with 4 and a half on the clock had the American grinning to the packed out crowd, who responded by roaring him on to further success. That basket helped contribute to a 14-2 Storm run in the middle of the quarter that completely changed the contest. Looking tired, it only got worse for Manchester.
AJ Roberts was a worthy MVP candidate
The wind truly went out of the Magic when Roberts hit another triple early in the 4th quarter. The ball went in right as the shot clock expired despite Goldsbrough being draped all over the American. At 6’10, the Manchester centre really couldn’t have done anything more to stop Roberts after getting caught in a poor rotation, but despite shooting off balance the ball found its mark and that was something that would continue for much of the final quarter.
To the delight of the Hemel crowd, Roberts continued to rain down the points. Each bucket was greeted with jubilation from the stands and that just spurred the MVP on. When Roberts knocked down his 5th 3-pointer with a little over 2 minutes to go, there was an inevitability about the effort before the ball even left his hands. And that proved to be the case as the Hemel lead moved above 20 when the triple found its mark with ease.
That basket was the signal for Coach Youngblood to call a halt to the onslaught as he sent a new starting 5 into the game for the remaining few minutes. That left Roberts and his deserving team mates to celebrate on the bench ahead of the final buzzer.
“You could just feel the vibes, hear the crowd, I loved performing for them to keep them happy,” said MVP Roberts. “That’s our connection. Me grinning at them, they just get louder!”
Coach Youngblood celebrates on the Hemel bench
“AJ was fantastic, it’s a blessing to be able to get him here and he led from the front today,” said winning coach Robert Youngblood. “I’m over the moon right now to be able to bring silverware to Hemel, the fans are fantastic. Year after year, they put teams together and sell the arena out, I’m so thankful for this win. I can’t tell you what my half time talk was to get us going today, but it wasn’t very nice! Once we picked up our defence from there though, it was game time.”
Manchester’s Coach Middleton was gracious in defeat after the final buzzer, “Hemel played a good game, they’re a deep and talented team. First half we came and did exactly what we planned to do. But we weren’t quite as deep, struggled a bit from there and defensively our rotations were poor once we got tired. Overall I’m pleased, not so much with the final score, but from the beginning to the start of the 3rd, we did a good job.”