An incredible first-half shooting display and a brilliant team performance has powered Melbourne United to victory over Illawarra Hawks.
Melbourne United has put together an even team performance in riding a scorching first quarter back to the top of the NBL ladder with a dominant win over Illawarra Hawks.
White hot from the get-go, United made 12 of their 14 shots in the first quarter, including 6-7 from the three-point line to open up a nine-point lead they would never surrender in a 87-76 victory.
While stars Jock Landale (a fifth double-double in a row with 13 points and 11 rebounds), Chris Goulding (11) and Mitch McCarron (8) played their role, it was United’s less-heralded who keyed the victory.
Jo Lual-Acuil had 14 first-half points off the pine on his way to 15 and seven rebounds, while fellow bench sparkplug Yudai Baba locked in on Illawarra star Tyler Harvey, holding him to 17 points, while compiling 11 of his own.
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Fatigue played a role, with three Hawks forced to play more than 31 minutes after a tough trip to Perth, while no United player exceeded 28.
United coach Dean Vickerman said his charges did what they had to do to ensure the points.
“It’s the best we’ve shared minutes and I thought, certainly, the intent was right to move the basketball,” Vickerman said after the win.
“The one negative for us is that we had 17 turnovers in that game, so it’s an area we’ve just got to continue to get better at.
“We know Illawarra had a tough schedule and travelled back from Perth and that’s a challenge in itself, so really moving bodies and making sure the energy defensively was there constantly, was what we were trying to achieve and I thought people just playing a little bit shorter minutes tonight was great for our offence early in the game.
“We really played fast and aggressive and shot the basketball well, but the end of the game, even though we moved bodies, for us to score 11 points, there was still a fatigue factor.”
The game was won in the first half, where United had 30 of their 56 off the bench and shot a ridiculous 72 per cent from the field. Conversely, Illawarra had zero bench points at the long break and were mauled on the glass throughout, 46-29.
With the way United was playing, it was a miracle the margin was only 14 at the long break, the Hawks’ elite men in Harvey and Justinian Jessup (19) keeping them in the game with their shotmaking.
Any unlikely hopes of a Hawks’ revival were fleeting as they lifted their intensity on the defensive end in the third quarter to hold United to 19 points, but missed a number of golden opportunities to eat into the lead in scoring 20 of their own.
They did briefly reduce the margin to 10 in the last quarter as both teams went cold, but Goulding drained his third three of the night out of a time-out and then Landale buttered one up to blow it back out to 15 with two minutes to go, the damage done.
United’s balance is a thing of absolute beauty. Every player knows their role and has performed it to a tee in an eight-game winning streak that continues Melbourne’s best run of the year.
McCarron is the general, Goulding is the firestarter, Landale does it all on both ends, Shea Ili and Baba lock down the opposition’s best wing player, Lual-Acuil is the bench bucket and every other guy can step in to fill a void when needed.
They love to share the ball too. Landale had 5 assists, McCarron 4, and Scotty Hopson and Ili three each, but every man is happy to give it up for a better shot, the ball often going through four and five players’ hands before it is launched.
Goulding entered the game needing seven more three-pointers to become the 18th NBL player to reach 800 makes from deep. He drained two in the first quarter and it looked like the milestone would be in danger, before he ended the game needing four more.
United hosts, on Saturday, an Adelaide 36ers side that just knocked off fellow contender South East Melbourne in Melbourne and could welcome back star big man Isaac Humphries after he spent more than two months on the sideline with injury.
JUST SHOOT IT, BIG JO
Dean Vickerman has handed telescopic bench big Jo Lual-Acuil the greenest of green lights this season. Whenever he touches the ball, it’s going up. He knows it, United knows it and the opposition knows it. Problem for Illawarra was, they simply could not stop him. The 213cm giant was electric in his first stint off the bench, scoring 10 points in just seven minutes on a perfect 5-5 shooting. He was up to 14 at halftime on 7-8 shooting in just 10 minutes.
Landale said Big Jo was the best back-up big man in the NBL.
“He’s a pretty tough guy to cover in practice, for me he’s helped me get better defensively just because of how good he is offensively,” Landale said.
“So having that comfort and knowing that we don’t have to stretch my minutes to that 35 range because Jo can come in and play 20 a night is awesome and the ability for us to play together is something that is pretty superior to other teams.
“Having him as a back up big in this league, he’s definitely the best one around, I would say, so for him to keep on coming in and producing is super important for our championship aspirations.”
SEIZING THEIR OPPORTUNITY
United’s role players are as much a key to their success as their stars. Mason Peatling (9) and Sam McDaniel (6) scored the team’s first nine points of the game between them, before the likes of Landale and Goulding.
“I thought the speed that Mason sprinted the floor, created a layup, created a wide-open three, got himself a wide-open three, the energy that he gave to everybody was infectious,” Vickerman said.
With Jack White out for the season with a ruptured Achilles, United needs Peatling to bring a similar energy at both ends of the floor.
McDaniel, in the starting line-up with Hopson coming off the bench in his return from injury, has also been given more opportunity this season and appears to grow in confidence with every possession.
“Sammy’s been playing at a really high level and he grabbed his opportunity to start with Hop out last week and I’ve got to keep rewarding people, I thought he was great,” Vickerman said.
Back from injury, Hopson (8) hit a pair of three pointers in the third quarter as Illawarra challenged and he is somewhat of a bogeyman for the Hawks. In five games now with Melbourne and the New Zealand Breakers, Hopson has never been on the wrong side of a result against Illawarra.