Against a Brisbane team gutted by the flu, Melbourne United didn’t have it all their own way, but a late flurry from their star shooter was enough to maintain top spot.
An at-times sloppy effort from Melbourne United might have had some fans in John Cain Arena wondering if they were about to hand the Sydney Kings the ascendancy in the race for top spot on the NBL ladder.
Against a severely depleted Bullets side, Melbourne — outside of the unique talents of Jo Lual-Acuil Jr — struggled to get it together, despite the stakes.
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But a quiet Chris Goulding went bang, bang, bang late in the last to give his side the impetus it needed to streak away with a fourth consecutive win, 88-79, and put one hand on the most important regular season prize.
United has two games to play and is outright top of the NBL ladder on 19 wins. The 18-win Kings have three games left.
United coach Dean Vickerman said there was pre-game concern about the outfit the Bullets would take the floor with after they were decimated by the flu.
“It was hard to prepare, (we) didn’t know who was playing for them,” Vickerman said.
“People were telling me they were only going to have eight players and different things.
“It’s like a team that’s just come in swinging with the guys they’ve got but there’s enough talent there to be really good.
“They came out shooting the basketball really well, we had some contested ones with a hand in your face, they made five threes in that first quarter to get going and get some life.”
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Vickerman said his charges dialled up the pressure when things were close in the last.
“Shea Ili does what Shea Ili does and just come up with extra possessions, Jack White, offensive rebounding, we finally got CG some decent looks and Jo was active all night.
“We were lacking a scoring punch tonight, CG in foul trouble, Delly sick, we had some things we had to deal with.
“We come away with a pleasing win, really.”
It was a helter-skelter first quarter between Melbourne and Brisbane, played at breakneck speed. At times, it was out of control, but that made for an entertaining affair, featuring a staggering 43 attempts between the two teams — almost half of those from deep.
It’s the sort of game United usually relishes and, with a full roster to call on, should have owned.
But the plucky Bullets — with only nine on the team sheet — dished up a bit of old-fashioned rec-league iso ball. And it worked early with Jason Cadee and Anthony Drmic making their own luck from down town, each connecting twice.
It was more of the same in the second, the Bullets continuing to manufacture offence from the individual talents of that aforementioned pair and import forward Lamar Patterson. All three had double digits at the half and that translated to a one-point advantage.
It was Big Jo or bust for United’s sputtering offence as Lual-Acuil Jr dominated with 18 points and 12 rebounds through three quarters.
Coach Dean Vickerman churned through his time-outs as he searched for the killer blow. He had only one left when he brought his players in, down four with two minutes to go in the third.
It had the desired effect, though, David Barlow’s corner three with two seconds remaining capping a seven-one run that tied the scores at 61.
Lual-Acuil Jr picked up where he left off, ramming home two to take the lead in the fourth, but the Bullets would not go away.
A trademark massive Ariel Hukporti block with five minutes remaining drew a huge roar from the John Cain Arena crowd, topped only by Ili’s transition lay-up that tied the scores again at 69.
White’s offensive board then produced a Goulding three, which put United up one.
He missed his next deep try, before launching again thanks to a Yudai Baba steal, making the margin four.
A pair of CG43 free throws on the very next play killed off any hope the Bullets had of producing a miracle.
United was forced to make a tweak to its starting line-up and, fresh off being named the players’ pick for most underrated in the NBL in News Corp’s exclusive survey, sparkplug Ili was inserted for a sick Matthew Dellavedova. The Kiwi was brilliant, producing a devastating effort on both ends of the floor.
The individual talents of Patterson and Cadee shone brightly for Brisbane, each eclipsing 20 points in the manful effort.
United have a quick turnaround Monday, hosting Cairns, before closing out the regular season in Tasmania against the JackJumpers next Saturday. The Bullets head to Cairns, also next Saturday, for their last game of NBL22.
The Bullets welcomed import Robert Franks back after he missed their last game with soreness, but that’s about where the good news ended on the personnel front.
The flu claimed breakout Next Star Tom Digbeu, import Isaiah Moss, Taane Samuel and Tamuri Wigness. Deng Deng was also crook, but he passed a fitness test before the game.
To compound matters for the Bullets, towering 225cm Chinese centre Chuanxing Liu suffered a knock to the knee in the third quarter and did not return.
It’s been a tough year for coach James Duncan and the Bullets.
Boomers star Nathan Sobey has missed a huge chunk with knee trouble and big man Tyrell Harrison has been cruelled by a series of injuries that had him shut down.
They have persevered, but will be hoping to retool and get a clean run at it next season.
Melbourne United 88-79 Brisbane Bullets
Lual-Acuil Jr: 25 points, 13 rebounds, 2 blocks
Ili: 13 points, 7 assists, 5 steals
Goulding: 13 points, 4 rebounds
Patterson: 23 points, 9 rebounds
Cadee: 20 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists
Drmic: 19 points
Originally published as NBL22: Melbourne United maintain top spot with win over Brisbane Bullets