BASKETBALL: Thunder get fourth successive home win

WORTHING THUNDER took over eighth spot from Guildford Heat on Saturday after squeezing out an unprecendented fourth straight BBL home victory.

Now, having narrowly beaten shorthanded cup finalists and fourth-placed Cheshire Jets 104-94, they seek to consolidate this Saturday in the third of four straight home fixtures. But the play-offs conflict is widening.

Next into the Thunderdome are rejuvenated Plymouth Raiders. With Andrew Lasker back on board among three beneficial changes, they are much more dangerous than in their 104-84 season-opening defeat here. They were watched by Thunder coach Dave Titmuss on Sunday in their 87-74 win at Everton Tigers.

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Everton are one of the two teams Worthing are yet to meet. The other is Worcester Wolves who, like Plymouth, are both improving and seeking to join Thunder in contention for a play-offs spot.

With winter having seriously set in here, Thunder's overseas players returned from the festive break and only their Finnish international small-forward, Ville Makalainen, had been home anywhere colder. Thus, warmed up, he led the game in dished-out nourishment with five assists against Jets '” while the scoreline slightly flattered Thunder.

Cheshire had already beaten Worthing twice by 24 points. But with forward Calvin Davis and shooter Colin O'Reilly both out injured, they had only six fit players, plus player assistant coach Richard Murphy.

Such is Thunder's strength since the debut, one match ago, of Lithuanian-Canadian point-guard Evaldas Zabas, that this was probably the first time in their one-and-a-half BBL seasons that their supporters felt genuinely confident of their team winning in such advantaged circumstances.

Thunder thus derived height advantage and, indeed, heavily out-rebounded Jets 45-30. They also led all the way. But it still wound up mighty close.

Jets' sixth man, ex-Thunder guard Steven Gayle, halted a blow-out in the making. Worthing left Jets on the runway, 23-9, the kerosene bursting from Reggie Bratton's afterburners on his way to 18 first-quarter points. Gayle's play hauled Jets all square at 31 and 44 but when they rested veteran James Hamilton (another ex-Worthing star), Thunder restored Bratton onto court and went into half-time up 55-48.

They were forcing Jets to the end of their clock and forcing last-ditch shots. Thunder were also on their way to making 24 of their 27 free throws in the game, as well as shooting from long range much the more tellingly.

Yet Hamilton, 38, almost stole the game. He followed back-to-back three-pointers with a clutch-time drive to the basket through Thunder's defence. His effort, had it gone in, would have cut Thunder's lead to 98-96 inside the last 90 seconds.

But it bounced off the rim, thanks '” he afterwards claimed, and Thunder admitted '” to a defender rattling the backboard, which was goaltending unpenalised. In the previous play, Worthing seemed to escape a backcourt violation. Instead, it ended spectacularly. Richard seized a storming offensive rebound from a Samuel Cricelli miss and, after a long offence, Makalainen fed Zabas for a left-handed three-pointer that licked the envelope closed at 101-94 with 27 seconds left.

Thunder rejoiced with six men in double figures, and a vastly improved team count of 13 turnovers. The Plymouth game will be a corker.

Thunder head coach Dave Titmuss sees the new-look Plymouth Raiders as a similar team to Thunder.

He said: "They also have strong guards (Andrew Lasker, Daniel Gilbert] so we'll match up with them. They made Everton look awful by using active defence, with a 3-2 zone and also man-to-man. They packed inside the three-point line '” like a football team away from home looking for a draw '” then got away on the break and put some shots up. Their guards make it happen.

"Plymouth and Worcester are picking up now and it's getting a bit hairy. But we are getting back to defend much better. We allowed Jets only one lay-up in the first half. We set out our stall and made a statement.

"Evaldas had not practised with us since returning from Canada. This week, he's looked really sharp in practice, and our 'four-guard set' (Zabas, Prezzie-Blue, Bratton, Makalainen] is the way I feel we are beating the bigger teams."

THUNDER 104: *Bratton 28pts (6-11in 2s, 2-4 in 3s, 10-11 in frees) 9rb 3ass 2stl, *Makalainen 17pts (6-10 0-0 5-6), 2rb 5ass, Zabas 15pts 4rb 3ass, *Richard 15pts, 11rb, 2ass, *Prezzie-Blue 14pts, *Cricelli 13pts 6rb, Midgley 2pts, Marrast 0pts 2rb, Hildreth 0pts 2rb, Brame 0pts.

JETS 94: *Hamilton 29pts (7-14 3-3 6-7) 9rb 2stl, *Myers 18pts 4rb, *Marks 17pts 2rb, Gayle 12pts 2rb 3ass, *Simpson 12pts 3rb, *Peterson 6pts 4rb 4stl, Murphy 0pts.

BBL (P W-L Pts): Sheffield 19 15-4 30; Newcastle 17 13-4 26; M.Keynes 16 11-5 22, Cheshire 15 9-6 18; Glasgow 14 8-6 16; Everton 15 8-7 16; Leicester 15 8-7 16; Thunder 17 8-9 16; Guildford 18 8-10 16; Plymouth 16 5-11 10; Worcester 13 4-9 8; London 15 3-12 6; Essex 16 3-13 6.

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