Storm fall to first home defeat in 616 days, as Rockets claim victory!

04/12/2023

Saturday 2nd December
Hemel Storm 84-92 Reading Rockets
NBL Division One

Hemel Storm were left to rue a costly slow start, as their improved later showings failed to haul back the early deficit afforded to a high-flying Reading team. Despite Hakeem Sylla’s 27 points for the home side, it was the visiting Mitch Clarke’s 26 that had the ultimate say, as his clinical shooting at key points was enough to see his side safely over the line, despite a Storm scare.

The Rockets wasted no time to take off at the StormDome and raced out into an early 9-2 lead, with Storm unable to cope with their offensive intensity and failed to respond with buckets of their own; Hakeem Sylla the only man able to stand firm, scoring Storm’s first 3 baskets. Key men stumbled out the blocks for Storm, with import Brayden Inger having a tough night hitting only 3 points - 12% from the field - and reliable shooter Burnell hitting just one of his 6 attempts from behind the arc. It felt ominous for Storm, as the sluggish start threatened to get away from them; a disappointing first spell coming to a close with Reading leading 30-18.

The ever-present club man Michael Darlow claimed another milestone on the night, taking the reins as Head Coach of the Division 1 men’s side for the first time in Mark Clark’s short-term absence and he masterminded a thrilling second quarter of action-packed basketball from his side. They engaged the lively home crowd, with both Darlow and captain Burnell beckoning the fans on-side, and was a great example of the impact of a boisterous atmosphere, acting as Storm’s sixth man as they looked to forge a way back into the game. As so often the case for this Storm side, improved defence acted as a catalyst to their offence, as Coach Darlow constantly switched defensive ploys, from man to zone, effectively flustering a stuttering Rockets side, and American Seth Swalve began to emerge with his sniper-like shooting coming to the fore. Reading didn’t know where to turn, and if it wasn’t for captain and familiar face Lewis Champion’s resistance, hitting vital shots to keep his troops ahead, Storm may have completed the comeback. Veron Eze again showed his energy and athleticism off the bench, and by half time the margin was 3 after an inspired Storm second quarter.

Storm needed to use the momentum gained before the break as they emerged from the locker room, but frustratingly it was once more the Rockets who came out quickest, getting three early long range efforts to fall to push the deficit back to double-digits. The home side were clinging on to the tails of the visitors here, but didn’t let them get away as some strong, determined inside play from Sylla had the lead back to 4 halfway through the third.  Former fan favourite and now BBL star Taylor Johnson was a guest at the StormDome for the first time, and along with ex-captain Tayo Oyefusi provided a reminder of last year’s excellence, as Storm looked to repeat the playoff semi-final victory over their same opponents; how Storm could have used some help from these two, however, as Storm’s offence never quite fired to level the game, the home side never claiming a lead in the tie. 62-69 was the score at the buzzer for the third, Storm not out of it yet. Infuriatingly, Rockets again came out of the blocks the faster of the sides with Australian Mitch Clark lighting it up from down-town; shooting 67% from long range on the night. Reading went on a 5 minute run of 12 to Storm’s 5 to again grab a clutch-hold of the game during an important period; a repeating theme of the night which would prove to be Storm’s overriding downfall. An inspired effort from the home side however and they didn’t give up, pulling the overall margin back to 8 which could play a part later in the year, with head-to-head records important, but Storm never really threatened a late comeback.

It goes down as another disappointing night for a Storm side so far unable to live up to the expectations of last year’s phenomenal effort, but there were signs of encouragement as they fought hard and claimed the last three quarters 66-62, showing their refusal to give up but also the costly nature of their below-par start. A Rockets side with hefty ambitions on the season came through in important moments and did enough to take a reasonably comfortable victory in the end. Hakeem Sylla had 27 points and 11 rebounds to continue his fine start to the season but lacked help from his teammates, with Seth Swalve’s 23 the only other notable contribution.

Storm return to action next week, back at the StormDome for the last time in their historic calendar year, facing Birmingham Rockets. Tip-off is 7pm, grab your tickets via the Storm website; www.stormbasketball.net

Written by Callum Humphrey
Photos by TGD Visuals

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