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Starlites’ late charge floors Mellieħa to lift men’s Super Cup

Starlites’ Alec Felice Pace (left) goes for the basket despite the challenge of Isaac Bonett. Photo: Jonathan Bugeja

Mellieħa Libertas         67

Starlites Naxxar           73

(21-16, 21-20, 7-22, 18-15)

The traditional Super Cup game set off the new 2022-23 season and pitted reigning champions Starlites Naxxar against last season’s knock-out winners Mellieħa Libertas.

This was the first Super Cup final being played after a lapse of three years due to COVID-19, with Hibernians the last team to lift the cup.

The game had an interesting ending with both sides with a possibility to emerge winners even if Mellieħa had to play without their US import player for the second part of the contest.

There was a balanced start to the game with both sides initially neutralising each other and it was only in the latter stages of the first rubber that Mellieħa moved ahead.

When Mellieħa also set off the second quarter with five back-to-back Connor Zinaich points, the northerners found themselves with a double-digit lead, 26-16.

Starlites had taken the first lead after the opening jump ball as an Alec Felice Pace bucket was followed by a three-ball from debutant Australian-Maltese, born in Melbourne and who played in the NAIA, for the past two seasons, with St. Francis in Illinois, Matt Attard.

Mellieħa, this year having a new play-caller on the sidelines in Italian Christian Narciso, were quick to reply and even momentarily registered a lead change, mainly through Zinaich and Vukasin Jandric.

Apart from Zinaich, originating from Maryland and who was on the books of Nova Southeastern in the NCAA Division 2 up till 2020 and was playing in the East Coast League with the Hub City Hogs last season, Mellieħa introduced a young Serb Nikola Jovanovic as well as a trio of local talent.

Starting off from the well-journeyed international guard David Bugeja as well as ex-Starlites, albeit still recovering from an injury, Robert Bonnici and Samuel Zammit who returned to action after a long hiatus.

Despite managing to thwart an 0-11 run, the Naxxar side could not recover the margin even if they were, at this juncture, getting more offensive points from their new US import duo namely the Virginia native

Darius George, who played for Marshall in the NCAA Division 1 last season, and Melvin Newbern Jr., from Minnesota who featured in the NCAA Division 2 with Minot State.

Buckets from David Bugeja and Isaac Bonett as well as a trey from Jandric added to Zinaich penetration plays to move Mellieħa to a a maximum 42-30 lead.

It was Attard who spearheaded Starlites’ final push in the frist half as his six points halved the team’s deficit whilst Mellieħa had to succumb to a blow, in the final stages of the first half, when Zinaich was judged for his second unsportsmanlike foul and, thus, was disqualified automatically for the remainder of the game.

Starlites FIJO players celebrate with the Super Cup trophy. Photo: Timmy Cutugno

A 13-0 Starlites’ run ensued after the interval as the Naxxar side managed to overturn the score from 30-42 to 49-42 in between the end of the second rubber and the start of the third quarter.

Locals Matthew Scerri and Ian Felice Pace added to George and Newbern’s buckets for the victors.

A trey from Serb Jovanovic upped the northerners’ morale even if Starlites closed off the third quarter with a brace of Alec Felice Pace baskets for 58-49.

Narciso’s boys showed a lot of resolute in the final quarter as they started gnawing consistently at their deficit and suddenly three-pointers from Bonett and the Serb-Maltese Nenad Buvka made it a tight one-point game, 59-60.

It was a tit-for-tat game for the next few minutes with both sides at each other’s heels until we had the game at par, 67-67, following a Bonett bucket for Mellieħa.

It was anybody’s game at this stage, yet a Matthew Scerri central spot three-pointer proved decisive as it opened a four-point Starlites’ lead with less than a minute to go and Mellieħa could not recover this deficit so late in the game.

At the end of the game, Starlites’ captain, Alec Felice Pace, was presented with the winning trophy by the MBA president, Paul Sultana, thus closing off the season’s first official contest and now the attention will shift to the MBA Shield competition which commences this weekend.

Mellieħa: S. Zammit 4, M. Falzon, D. Bugeja 7, R. Bonnici, V. Jandric 14, I. Bonett 15, N. Bukva 3, N. Jovanovic 10, C. Zinaich 14, M. Formosa.

Starlites: A. Felice Pace 13, M. Attard 10, M. Newbern 11, I. Felice Pace 5, M. Fabri, L. Riolo, M. Scerri 8, R. Carabott, L. Farrugia, K. Xuereb 1, N. Sultana, D. George 25.

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

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