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Play-off spots tussle heating up in the men’s national league

Starlites player Matthew Scerri goes for the basket despite the challenge of Marco Matijevic. Photo: Wally Galea

League game day nine saw Starlites Naxxar maintain the top spot in the standings after a win over bottom placed BUPA Luxol.

In the coming days, they are expected to sign a second American with the question being whether they would have enough time, with only six games remaining in the regular season, to challenge for a play-off spot when they are now three games behind the fourth spot.

Second-placed Hibs registered another century win but had to fight hard to ward off fifth placed Gzira Athleta’s final efforts.

In the other match, Depiro and Mellieha Libertas started off with equal points in the table yet Depiro’s eventual win had the Mtarfa side jump to the third spot, just one game behind Hibs and one game ahead of Mellieha.

Depiro 82
Mellieħa Libertas 73
(14-22, 22-19, 21-16, 25-16)

Following a brace of early hoops by Depiro through TJ Atwood and Michael Debattista, Mellieħa Libertas registered the first considerable run in the game when they netted ten straight points with Austin Wrighten grabbing a three-ball followed by an and-one play.

The northerners managed to maintain the lead for the remainder of the first half despite their opponents’ efforts to recover the deficit.

Avery Sullivan and Atwood netted hoops in the last part of the first rubber but threes from Wrighten and Nikola Vasovic helped Mellieħa to a 22-14 first-quarter lead.

A 6-0 streak through Wrighten and Vukasin Jandric, who came off the bench, led Mellieħa to their maximum lead, 30-15, after 13 minutes of play.

Depiro had two import players for this game as last week’s new addition, Koby Thomas, who had arrived after a short stint in the Finnish league, is reported to have left after just one game.

This margin kept constant for five minutes as a Malik Colvin Sheldon and-one play helped Libertas move 39-27 ahead. But Depiro managed to up their psychological stance when they closed off the first half with a 9-2 run so that there were five points separating the two sides, 41-36, at the interval.

Mellieħa lost their play caller Adrian Mifsud, who was ejected on a double technical foul for persistent protests. But the third quarter was a balanced affair for the most part even if Depiro managed to get the game at par and then the two sides replied to each other for a tied 57-57 scoreline with just one quarter to go.

The game tempo did not change for the first six minutes in the last rubber and a Nenad Buvka free throw from two putting Mellieħa 68-66 in front with four minutes to the final buzzer.

Here, Depiro had their game winning moment as they outscored their opponents 14-2 in the next three minutes capitalising on some turnovers to score fast transition points.

With a double-digit lead so late in the game, Depiro held back Mellieħa’s last efforts to register their league double over the same opponents after a 70-66 first round success.

Depiro: S. Galea 2, B. Nel, A. Attard 5, N. Grech, S. Vella, TJ Attwood 41, M. Brincat 7, M. Mallia, A. Sullivan 22, M. Debattista 5, L. Vella.
Mellieħa: M. Falzon 2, V. Jandric 16, N. Vasovic 7, I. Bonett 3, C. Briffa, N. Bukva 7, M. Colvic-Seldon 13, M. Azzopardi 2, CJ Cordina, N. Sultana, A. Wrighten 23.
Referees: B. Vassallo, Z. Dobrosavljevic, F. Ciurariu.

Hibernians 103
Gżira Athleta 98
(26-18, 32-21, 23-23, 22-36)

Hibs made it two league wins over Gżira Athleta after a hard-fought encounter which ended as a very high-scoring one with both sides amassing more than 200 points in the 40 minutes of regulation time.

The game seemed to have already taken its definite path after three quarters, with the Paolites playing with around a 20-point lead.

However, Athleta made a strong effort and managed to reopen the game after a 19-4 streak to make a mere three-point game, 89-86, with four minutes to the final buzzer.

The game got off on a balanced note with Gżira taking the early lead with Zach Hudson netting five quick baskets but three balls from Christian Soderholm and Mason Vires kept Hibs close by.

The latter surged ahead with a 13-0 run to open a double-digit 30-18 lead after 12 minutes of play.

Although Athleta tried to recoup the deficit, including with long-distance shots from Nathan Xuereb, Hibs still again managed to extend their lead after they closed the first half with another positive run, this time of 11 consecutive points with David Bugeja getting the bulk of them assisted by Ivan Demcesen and Matthew Attard.

A very early second half hoop from Soderholm had Hibs enjoying a considerable 60-39 lead.

With Hudson and Shawn Montague taking most of the offensive responsibility, Athleta halved the deficit in the next five minutes but their subsequent missed free throws did not help.

Hibs again had a positive ending to a quarter as an 11-2 run had them 81-62 in front with only a quarter to go.
Athleta’s best patch arrived in the first part of the final rubber when Xuereb and Matthew Gouder assisted their American duo and the game totally reopened four minutes from time.

Three back-to-back hoops from Hibs eased some of their pressure and forced Athleta to call a time-out as they suddenly fell back behind.

A Xuereb trey, in the final minute, gave fresh hope to Gżira at 96-99 but free throws, after tactical Athleta fouls, from Soderholm and Vires ascertained Hibs victory.

Hibs: M. Vires 28, N. Cassar, D. Bugeja 16, L. Farrugia, K. Dimech 2, A. Axiaq 5, R. Aquilina, M. Attard 4, C. Soderholm 32, I. Dencesen 14, P. Shoults 2.
Athleta: Z. Hudson 31, S. Montague 18, F. Mifsud Bonnici 6, L. Stefanovic, N. Xuereb 29, M. Gouder 14, I. Xuereb, S. Vincic, B. Zammit.
Referees: B. Vassallo, Z. Dobrosavljevic, V. Nikolic.

Starlites Naxxar 101
BUPA Luxol 80
(29-21, 21-21, 27-22, 24-16)

BUPA Luxol, despite their deficit of having just one professional import player, fought hard for a good part of the game but then had to succumb to their opponents in the latter stages of the game when the short bench starts making its toll.

It was a very evenly-contested game till the 24th minute with the score 58-55 for the league leaders.

But from then on, Starlites started showing more offensive prowess to gradually extend the lead to a double-digit one and two small six- and seven-point streaks had them comfortbaly ahead in the final stages of the game.

Matthew Scerri, Kurt Xuereb and Myles Thomas, with a brace of three-balls, had the first Starlites’ buckets. But Luxol kept close as Jean Paul Schembri assisted Canaan Coffey.

A momentary good spurt by the Naxxar side, with points off Jamiah Windom Haynes, Jacob Bates and Alec Felice Pace seemed to have set their team on to control the game, leading 35-21.

Here, Luxol showed character as they had their best run in the game with ten straight points and shortly after an and-one play by Coffey made it a tied game at 42-a-piece after 18 minutes.

Starlites did manage to forge slightly ahead but it was an open game midway in the third quarter.

Although Coffey continued potting hoops for Luxol, at the opposite end Bates and Xuereb’s buckets and final quarter plays by Haynes followed by an early last rubber three ball from Felice Pace speared Starlites to a 82-64 lead with eight minutes to go.

The St Andrews’ side tried to recover but a late 11-2 run by Starlites not only had them surpass the century mark but also make sure of their eight league win.

Starlites: A. Felice Pace 15, I. Azzopardi 2, A. Azzopardi, I. Felice Pace 1, M. Fabri, L. Riolo, M. Scerri 10, J. Bates 21, L. Farrugia 2, K. Xuereb 12, J. Haynes 16, M. Thomas 22.
Luxol: J. Cefai 6, N. Buhagiar, P. Attard 3, JP Schembri 11, A. Trapani 3, L. Trapani, C. Coffey 45, S. Opojevlic, M. Matijevic 6, S. Cappello 6.
Referees: I. Simic, F. Ciurariu, N. Azzopardi.

STANDINGS

Starlites Naxxar 17; Hibs 15; Depiro 14; Mellieħa Libertas Spalding 13; Gżira Athleta 12; BUPA Luxol 10.

NEXT FIXTURES

PLAYING ON SATURDAY
Hibs vs Depiro 13.30
Mellieħa vs Starlites 15.45

PLAYING ON SUNDAY
BUPA Luxol vs Gzira Ath. 13.30

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