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Fight for play-off spots intensifies in men’s league

William Clairbone goes for the basket against Gżira Athleta. Photo: Wally Galea

The second round of the regular season came to an end and now only one more round is left before the start of the play-offs.

With Starlites Naxxar now already guaranteed a spot following their ninth win this weekend, three spots are now up for grabs and the fight is really intensifying following BUPA Luxol’s win over Gżira Athleta.

Hibs have some headway in the race for these spots being three wins ahead of the fourth place but the other teams are all now for a clear chance for the remaining places.

BUPA Luxol   91

Gżira Athleta 77

(19-21, 19-24, 31-12, 22-20)

Buoyed by the return of the 211cm centre William Claiborne, BUPA Luxol closed the second round with a win over Gżira Athleta and intensified much further the fight for the post-regular season play-off spots.

Claiborne played for Luxol just before the stop imposed by COVID-19 in the 2019-20 season and now returned with the Violets for the last part of this year’s regular-season as the side’s second professional import player to accompany guard Canaan Coffey.

A Coffey hoop followed by a trey and free throws from Claiborne gave Luxol an early 15-6 lead with Athleta missing a number of free throws in the opening quarter.

Gżira, however, started scoring with more consistency in the latter stages of the same first quarter mainly through Matthew Gouder and Zach Hudson for a tight 21-19 lead.

It was tit-for-tat in the first part of the second quarter with the lead also changing hands a number of times. Claiborne started finding more space and hoops assisted by Coffey and even close-range shots from Stefan Capello and Marko Matijevic. At the opposite end Shawn Montague had back to back baskets as well as Francesco Mifsud Bonnici.

Just before the half time interval Athleta had a good patch with a 10-2 run opened by Nathan Xuereb and closed with a Gouder trey so that they were 45-38 at the end of the first half.

Two Jean Paul Schembri three-balls upped Luxol’s morale exactly at the start of the second half and despite Montague’s hoops for Athleta, Duncan Fenech’s side regained the lead as Claiborne led them to 56-51.

Coffey had two treys within a few seconds but then committed his fourth foul and was benched.

Following more missed free throws by Athleta, Luxol closed off the third quarter with a buzzer-beater jumper from Claiborne for 69-57.

Athleta received a setback very early in the final quarter when Hudson made his fifth foul and had to leave the court but Montague and a Luca Stefanovic trey had them arrive momentarily six points away.

Slavko Opojevlic gave some breathing space to Luxol with a three-pointer but it was still a six-point game 74-68, with four minutes to go after further Montague efforts.

Here Luxol made a solid move to the win with a 10-2 run with six points coming off Coffey who returned on the court.

Athleta tried to recover but it was Luxol who managed to grab important baskets with Claiborne closing with a game-high 40 personal points and moving Luxol just a game away from the same Athleta and two games behind the fourth spot in the standings, presently occupied by Mellieħa.

Luxol: J. Cefai, N. Buhagiar, P. Attard 1, JP Schembri 6, A. Trapani, L. Trapani, C. Coffey 25, S. Opojevlic 3, M. Matijevic 4, S. Cappello 12, W. Claiborne 40. 

Athleta: Z. Hudson 15,  S. Montague 24, F. Mifsud Bonnici 8, L. Stefanovic 8, N. Xuereb 9, M. Gouder 13, I. Xuereb, S. Vincic, B. Zammit.

Referees: Z. Dobrosavljevic, I. Simic, V. Nikolic.

Hibernians    96

Depiro            81

(23-20, 25-20, 20-26, 28-15)

Hibs closed off the second-round play with a second win over Depiro after their 100-76 success two months ago. This time round the Paolites had to dig more deeply to get the better of Depiro who were into the game right until the final minutes until a late 13-0 Hibs run determined the outcome.

The first half was evenly balanced with Hibs having just a slight lead for most of the time.

Keith Dimech, who had a fine shooting day, set the points going for Hibs followed by a Mason Vires trey.

James Bamfield called an early timeout and following these hoops from Depiro’s professional import players TJ Atwood and Avery Sullivan gave the Mtarfa side the first lead, albeit marginal at 13-12.

Hibs reaction came through Christian Soderholm and Ivan Demcesen as they managed to close off the first quarter just ahead.

Yet they then managed to extend the lead with a strong start to the second quarter. Dimech had back-to-back treys and despite points, at the other end, from Nicholas Grech, Hibs moved to a 35-26 lead forcing Depiro to call their second time-out.

Play returned to a balanced mode until the half-time buzzer with both sides not managing to outplay each other for a 48-40 score at the interval.

The second half initially continued at the same tempo with Hibs’ hoops from Soderholm and Vires being replied by treys from Depiro’s young Miguel Brincat and Michael Debattista. Yet then Depiro had a positive stretch as they obtained a 14-6 run which had them regain the lead at 64-62 with 11 minutes to go.

At this juncture, Hibs came up with a 12-2 run spread over almost four minutes of play including hoops from David Bugeja and Peter Shoults as they now again re-established a 76-68 lead.

It was still not over as Depiro, through Atwood and Sullivan, came back into the game moving to 81-83 behind with four minutes to go.

However, from here till the final buzzer Depiro dried up completely as Hibs ascertained their seventh league win with a closing 13-0 run.

Hibs: M. Vires 11, N. Cassar, D. Bugeja 16, L. Farrugia 5, K. Dimech 25, A. Axiaq 4, R. Aquilina, M. Attard 2, C. Soderholm 18, I. Dencesen 15, P. Shoults.

Depiro: B. Nel, A. Attard 3, N. Grech 12, S. Vella, TJ Attwood 29, M. Brincat 12, M. Mallia, A. Sullivan 22, M. Baldacchino, M. Debattista 3, L. Vella, S. Kenely.

Referees: G. Barbara, N. Azzopardi, I. Ciurariu.

Mellieħa Libertas      89

Starlites Naxxar         99

(19-17, 21-25, 22-33, 27-24)

Starlites Naxxar had some payback against a very resolute and hard-fighting Mellieħa Libertas side after the northerners had inflicted Starlites’ only defeat this season with an 87-79 win in late November.

Three Malik Colvin Sheldon early hoops not only neutralised Starlites’ initial buckets from Jamiah Windom Haynes but also helped Mellieħa open a fourth-minute 10-5 lead.

An and-one play from Alec Felice Pace followed by another hoop from the same player and Myles Thomas’ jumper in between had Starlites momentarily taking the upper edge but Mellieħa returned in front with late baskets from Austin Wrighten and Colvin Sheldon.

A 10-0 streak, with six of these points off Thomas, had the Naxxar side regain the lead and they extended this margin to eight points three minutes later with further points from Felice Pace.

The Libertas side did not stay put and with more points coming off Wrighten and the high-scoring Colvin Sheldon the game was back at par with seconds to go till the half time interval.

However, a Matthew Scerri bucket helped Starlites end the first half with a marginal 42-40 lead.

Play was again very balanced in the first eight minutes of the second half but the game then took an interesting turn when Starlites closed the third quarter with a 12-2 run which ultimately proved important for the outcome of the game.

Treys from Windom Haynes and Felice Pace added to the hoops from Thomas and Scerri as Starlites now had a double digit 75-62 lead with one quarter to go.

Mellieħa did try to recover the deficit also with three-balls from Nikola Vasovic and Isaac Bonett apart from further actions from Colvin Sheldon but Starlites managed to stay distant as they had long-distance shots from Scerri and Windom Haynes.

Time was now in the league leader’s favour and they managed to control the tempo in the final minutes to make sure of the win and also are now guaranteed a place in the play-offs.

Mellieħa: V. Jandric 4, N. Vasovic 11, I. Bonett 8, C. Briffa, N. Bukva 11, M. Colvin-Seldon 38, M. Azzopardi, CJ Cordina 3, N. Sultana, A. Wrighten 14.     

Starlites: A. Felice Pace 25, I. Azzopardi, A. Azzopardi,  I. Felice Pace 4, M. Fabri, L. Riolo, M. Scerri 16, J. Bates 8, L. Farrugia, K. Xuereb 2, J. Haynes 22, M. Thomas 22.  

Referees: B. Vassallo, Z. Dobrosavljevic, F. Ciurariu.

Standings: Starlites Naxxar 9/1 (19); Hibs 7/3 (17); Depiro 5/5 (15); Mellieħa Libertas Spalding 4/6 (14); Gżira Athleta 3/7 (13); BUPA Luxol 2/8 (12).

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