Blackstone resurgence continues as Ballymena stun Cavs.
DUNGANNON – Having snuck into the BNI Premier League Play-offs last weekend with a victory over the Kilkeel Knights to finish 7th overall, Ballymena placed one foot in the second round with a stunning victory against regular season runners-up, the Cavaliers, at Dungannon Leisure Centre today (Sunday).
Yes, Blackstone travelled with a small squad belying their lack of depth, but their starting five once again showed why their early-season woes should be consigned to memory. If anyone had been in any doubt about Ballymena’s competitiveness going in to the play-offs, those doubts surely now have dissipated.
Blackstone performances of the past had been typified by energy, intensity and sharp shooting; and today, everything seemed to fall in to place for the men in black, leaving even the Ballymena coaching staff dumbstruck with pride at the season’s turnaround.
Marty McDonald struck five times from long range on his way to a 28pt total for the second time in as many weeks, while Adam Hillis’s impressive form continued as he clocked up 21pts through his full court speed and slashing to the basket. He is fast becoming one of the league’s most influential swingmen; combining long arms, explosive quickness and high IQ, he is a worthy All-Star nominee.
If McDonald and Hillis turned in the most eye-catching offensive performances for Blackstone, it was Bastakys, Saulytis and Macikas (with 20, 22 and 19pts respectively) who reminded the visitors just where they were.
Simonas Bastakys, in particular, posed a constant threat for the Cavaliers and despite 20pts, was arguably under-utilised by the home side who could have exploited his inside advantage to greater effect. Blackstone’s 1-3-1 defence unsettled some of the Cav’s shooting in the opening two quarters and with the Cavs struggling to strike from outside the arc, they might have gone to Bastakys more often.
What the 6’8 centre gives on the offensive boards and put-backs alone should be enough to make him a viable Plan A attacking option, let alone Plan B clean up after the shooting game. The thought of Bastakys and Ger Murray teaming up in the post in the All-Star Game next month might well force TCC to rename one of the teams the Haarland & Wolff All-Stars with a Samson and Goliath partnership of two of the league’s most effective bigs.
Although Blackstone raced out in front early on, scoring 23 and 29pts in the first and second quarters to lead by 20pts at the half; they had to dig deep defensively in order to secure the win. The Cavs clawed back 11 of the 20 points in the third quarter, as their talented squad showed why they were last season’s Champions, but Blackstone refused to panic.
The return of Peter McNicholl to the Blackstone ranks continues to be a boon to the Ballymena men – he had 17pts to go with his 18 last week – and his recent consistency has been a major positive influence. More impressive than his points tally was his defensive work-rate and leadership; never more so than when marshalling those around him in the zone.
It was a game that may have been the season’s best so far, and although such judgments are subjective, all of the All-Star nominees on show certainly lived up to their billing.
It was a game that may have been the season’s best so far, and although such judgments are subjective, all of the All-Star nominees on show certainly lived up to their billing. The contributions of McDonald, Hillis and Bastakys can easily be verified by the score sheet; but to appraise the performance of Blackstone captain Adam Murray, you would have had to be there.
Murray’s contribution of 10pts, including two threes, may seem innocuous at a glance, but those shots came at crucial times and his on-the-floor-leadership was vital to a team that functions with what is really only 5 players. While many would have been jaded after picking themselves up from the floor twice on one defensive play, Murray regrouped and sank the three pointer after a swing pass from Hillis on the subsequent fast break.
By the end of the game, Murray was still drawing something from the well, finding the energy to chase the ball down full-court and cap a superlative defensive performance.
Indeed such was the nature of today’s game that Coach Paul McKee was left to reflect that it was his team’s “best performance maybe ever.” The Cavaliers, on the other hand, will already be plotting how to set the record straight, having beaten Blackstone twice in the regular season.
The Dungannon team travel to Ballymena next Sunday night for a 7pm tip-off, and while Ballymena’s 1-0 series lead by no means guarantees them a place in the second round, it does guarantee that Game 2 will be huge.