Worthing Thunder reached the National League Division 1 play-off final by overcoming a physical Loughborough Student Riders side 76-65 at their prestigious university campus yesterday.
Marquis Mathis led Worthing with 28 points, while Zaire Taylor added 21 and Brendan Okoronkwo posted a double-double of 12 points and ten rebounds. Former Thunder forward Max Richardson lead Loughborough's scoring with 13 points.
In a game of two halves, crucially, Worthing’s time came in the third and fourth quarters where they went ahead for the first time early in the third. Despite a couple of lead changes throughout, Thunder were able to control their own destiny.
Speaking after the play-off semi-final win, Thunder coach Daniel Gayle said: “We were a little flustered in the first half and we let Loughborough play their game.
“But when we came out for the third, we were dominant and we played to our strengths and, even though not everyone scored, everyone played a vital role in this win.”
Thunder did fall behind early in the first quarter as a rare three-pointer from former Worthing junior Hosana Kitenge gave Loughborough a 17-9 lead, forcing coach Gayle to call a timeout.
Worthing threatened but were not able to break down a stalwart Riders defensive line as their lead peaked at ten points, eventually settling for a 40-37 half-time lead.
It seemed that the hosts had Thunder figured out and whatever trace of momentum Worthing carried was snuffed out by the home side.
But an inspirational half-time team talk from Gayle wore off on his more experienced side, as they utilised every inch of their veteran skillset to claw their way back into proceedings.
Quick buckets by Mathis and Okoronkwo handed Worthing their first lead of the game, leaving Riders rocked as the momentum was with Thunder. After a deep three from Taylor to hand the visitors a 52-47 cushion midway through the third, there was a slight hesitation from the players who were expecting a break in play.
With Loughborough coach Mark Jerram yet to use his timeouts and the impetus with Worthing, the midway point of the third seemed the right time for Jerram to pull his shaken troops.
But his timeout was not called until just over three minutes into the fourth quarter, which seemed a risky tactic to let the game go and it did not pay off.
Thunder were second best for the first two quarters at National League Division 1 winners Loughborough but they found their groove, easing their way to victory by holding the fatigued Riders to just nine points in the fourth.
Worthing guard Jorge Ebanks said: “It was strange that no timeouts were called, especially on their part in the third but it played to our advantage. We had the momentum and it carried on.
“But by the same token, it showed the great amount of trust that the Loughborough coach has in his team. They have been incredible all year but we wanted this more.”
For Ebanks, it was third time lucky against Loughborough. Forced off in the early stages of the second quarter in their league encounter back in December before being ruled out with a groin injury for the return fixture last month.
This time around the Staten Island native was battling his own demons. But he conquered them in this semi-final, with a virtuoso performance where he flirted with a triple-double.
Ebanks settled for a statline of nine points, nine assists and 13 rebounds. He admitted those stats would have meant nothing had Thunder not won.
He added: “I was jinxed this season playing this team, but I’m happy with the way I played and I feel good that we came away with the win, which was the goal."
The ultimate goal is to come as Thunder hope to beat Hemel Storm in the play-off final in Manchester on April 29.