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Starlites defeat Hibernians to lift U-23 championship

Starlites U23 players celebrate with the championship trophy. Photo: Stephen Christopher Vella

Starlites Naxxar raised the 2023 Under-23 women’s league trophy after beating Hibernians in two straight games in the championship series.

One can easily say that the first game in the same series had a large bearing on the outcome of the championship as the initial rubber on the series had to be decided right at the end of the first overtime period with a buzzer-beater that swayed the win off Hibs’ hands and placed Naxxar on a psychological high ahead of game two.

Although Starlites’ leading player Mikela Riolo (double-double with 32 points at 42% and 15 rebounds, four assists, eight steals) and young prospect Mariah Fenech (11 rebounds, team-high nine assists, and nine steals) had given their side an early lead, Hibs showed a lot of composure and then enjoyed the lead for over 35 minutes in the first game.

Very early after the change of ends, the Paolites managed to open a double-digit lead at 38-28, following a close-ranger from centre Julia Dabic (double-double with 23 points, three blocks, and 17 rebounds) and a trey from Kirsty Caruana (also with a double-double, 21 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists).

Despite Starlites’ efforts, Hibs kept neutralising each suffered basket with one of their own at the other end and the end of the third quarter had them 52-45 ahead. They seemed to be moving to a first win in the series when a Britney Agius (12 rebounds) three-ball followed by a Dabic put-back, off a Kelly Conti assist (team-high 9 assists) had them open a maximum 11-point lead, 61-50, with just six minutes to go for the end of normal regulation time.

However, Starlites had other ideas and mounted pressure on their opponents who started committing turnovers.

Buoyed also by a superior offensive rebound game (24-10), Starlites started gnawing away at the deficit with a brace of Riolo treys and hoops from Michela Zammit Cordina (42% shooting and four assists) and Catherine Cilia (seven rebounds).

Hibs seemed to have hit a big breather when Dabic scored from inside the key to make it +5 for her team with 23 seconds to go.

Skipper Riolo was her side’s first hero on the day as she first made a quick lay-up and then, with time coming down to a mere two seconds, landed a game-tie three-pointer for 67-67.

The five-minute overtime period was a tight, balanced affair with players also feeling the tension of the match.

Again, there was a nail-biting finale. Riolo, with yet another trey (six from 15 shots from long range) made it 75-74 with less than 30 seconds to go but Hibs were quick to reply when Jasmine Abela reached personal double figures and looked to have ascertained Hibs’ victory.

Starlites had one last possession and Zammit Cordina found open space in Hibs’ defence and landed a mid-range jumper which saw nothing but net and gave a dramatic buzzer-beater win to Starlites.

Game Two was a totally different game, and it was practically a foregone conclusion by the halfway mark. Starlites were with high morale following their first game success whilst Hibernians looked a subdued lot once they quickly found themselves in arrears very early in the game.

A late 11-0 Naxxar run continued to distance the two teams as the first quarter ended 22-8 and matters got more complicated for Hibs when Starlites landed a 22-2 streak in the second quarter with points from all their players on the court at that juncture.

After the two teams changed ends at 44-19, play became more balanced although Starlites were clearly in the driving seat. Hibs did have their best moments in the last quarter, where they managed to halve the deficit to 12 points, but time run out.

At the end of the game, MBA secretary Joseph Muscat presented the league trophy to Starlites’ captain Mikela Riolo as her side made merry with the numerous club supporters present for the final.

Game 1

Starlites 77
Hibernians 76
(after overtime; 13-17, 13-16, 19-19, 22-15, 10-9)
Hibernians: K. Caruana 21, J. Abela 10, B. Agius 10, K. Conti 12, J. Gauci, J. Dabic 23, M. Mendez
Starlites: E. Degiorgio, M. Riolo 32, J. Micallef, K. Mifsud 6, M. Zammit Cordina 19, A. Saliba 4, M. Fenech 6, N. Caruana, C. Cilia 2, M. Sciberras 2, L. Demartino 6.
Referees: Z. Dobrosavljevic, N. Azzopardi.

Game 2

Hibernians 55
Starlites 69
(8-22, 11-22, 12-16, 24-9)

Hibernians: K. Caruana 13, J. Abela 20, B. Agius 6, E. Farrugia, K. Conti, J. Gauci, J. Dabic 16, M. Mendez
Starlites: E. Degiorgio, M. Riolo 16, J. Micallef, K. Mifsud 18, M. Zammit Cordina 18, A. saliba 4, M. Fenech 8, N. Caruana, C. Cilia 3, P. Riolo, M. Sciberras, L. Demartino 2.
Referees: B. Vassallo, Z. Dobrosavljevic, B. Mrkojevic.

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