Melbourne United have won the battle for top spot on the NBL ladder after overcoming a serious challenge from local rivals South East Melbourne Phoenix to record a 94-87 victory at John Cain Arena.
After seeing their early 14-point lead disappear following a devastating 21-0 scoring run from the Phoenix, United kept their cool during Thursday night’s tense final quarter to secure their tenth win of the season thanks to a career-best 30-point night from centre Jo Lual-Acuil.
South East Melbourne took a 68-64 edge into the fourth quarter but after seven lead changes down the stretch, the experience of captain Chris Goulding (15 points) came to the fore as United denied the Phoenix the chance to win consecutive Throwdown clashes for the first time in their history.
Goulding provided a steady hand in the closing stages while Acuil and Jack White combined for eight straight points in the final minutes to hand the defending champions the decisive break.
Coach Dean Vickerman spoke highly of Acuil’s recent form with the 211-centimetre big averaging close to 25 points, 14 rebounds and 2.5 blocks over the past four games as United moved two wins clear at the top of the table.
“I think any time you reach an elite level like Jo has through this period and then keep doing it consistently, knowing that people’s coverages are going to increase on him and he’s going to see more attention and there’s going to be more focus in the scout on him,” Vickerman said.
“For him to keep running through that and even seeing his numbers lift, it’s pretty exceptional.”
Seeking redemption after a controversial Round 2 loss to their crosstown rivals, highlighted by an ugly melee following Mason Peatling’s clash with Phoenix star Mitch Creek, United powered ahead 39-25 after an outstanding 15-point opening quarter from Acuil.
South East Melbourne turned the derby on its head by outscoring United 25-11 in the second term to take a one-point lead into halftime before producing a 10-0 start to the third quarter to surge ahead 52-41.
But the Phoenix were unable to withstand United’s final charge despite another standout effort from Creek (23 points), leaving coach Simon Mitchell cursing his side’s hesitant start to the match.
“The opportunity presented itself, it was disappointing to come out the way we did, we shouldn’t have to warm our way into the game, we’ve got to be better than that,” Mitchell said.
“It’s a good reminder for us as to where we need to get to as our development continues.”