MELBOURNE United are off to the big dance once again, bypassing crosstown rivals South East Melbourne Phoenix by 10 points, 84-74. It was an inspired second half by the top of the table United who looked down and out in the opening term but turned things around to claim the win with star recruit Jock Landale imposing himself when the going got tough.
Despite just sneaking into the top four the Phoenix had a real aura of confidence and determination which was on show from the opening minutes. Although it took over a minute for a score to be registered it was Mitch Creek that landed the first blow, with the Phoenix in control of proceedings, piling on the scoreboard pressure and limiting the options United had to go to basket. Reuben Te Rangi found his rhythm nice and early before Keifer Sykes took control with the American import draining eight points alone in the first quarter. United looked in all sorts of trouble while the Phoenix were in cruise control pushing out to a handy 10-point lead thanks to a 24-14 point term.
The second quarter was not much better for United as New Zealander Izayah Le’Afa nailed consecutive threes for South East Melbourne. The game started to slip away for United as the lead ballooned out to 17 points. Needing a spark and a way to get themselves back into the contest, Landale came to life. Relatively well held in the first stanza he kicked it up a gear in the second draining a whopping 12 points alone to spur United on and single-handedly drag them back into the match. From 17 points in the early stages of the quarter, the lead was dwindled down to five to give United a fighting chance in the third.
That fighting chance was all United needed as the minor premiers rallied in the third to put the Phoenix on the back foot. The momentum steadily switched hands as fan favourite and Melbourne United stalwart, Chris Goulding imposed himself on the contest. In his 350th game, Goulding had plans that did not involve losing as he sunk a triple within the opening minutes of the quarter. Landale picked up where he left off with an additional six points while Scotty Hopson upped the ante to really apply the pressure on the Phoenix. An 18-12 term handed United the lead heading into the final term and with the grand final in sight it was all systems go.
The class and composure of United came to the fore as Mitch McCarron added to their one-point margin to push it out to three and set the wheels in motion. The increased defensive pressure from United was causing all sorts of trouble for the Phoenix who were struggling to find the basket. Goulding continued to steer the ship landing a handy triple with Yudai Baba also showing his skill from range to nail a three and seal the deal to win by 10 points.
Bursting out of the blocks in the first quarter, Sykes was well held for the rest of the match as he finished with 15 points, three rebounds and four assists to his name. Creek was his ever-reliable self, producing 19 points and nine rebounds as Te Rangi had arguably his best game to-date to topscore with 22 points at 61 per cent and register six rebounds. The load was shared relatively evenly for United but it was Landale that caught the eye with a scintillating 27 points and impressive 84 per cent accuracy from the field. He also managed eight rebounds in his 34 minutes on court. Goulding was the next best with 14 points, two assists and two steals while McCarron showed his class thanks to his 11 points, eight rebounds and six assists. Hopson was also handy off the bench sinking nine points and six rebounds.
United will now take on Perth Wildcats in the Grand Final series, a scenario they know all too well having played in the 2018/19 season. Melbourne will be hoping to reverse their fortunes this time round, however will have to play the first two games at RAC Arena due to current COVID-19 restrictions in Victoria.
Photo credit: Mark Kolbe