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Starlites coach Ferrante hails team focus after title success

Starlites coach Paul Ferrante (right) with club president Ivan Riolo. Photo: Stephen Christopher Vella

The 2022/23 men’s basketball season came to a close last week with Starlites FIJO successfully defending their league title after a championship series win over rivals Mellieħa Libertas.

Starlites’ coach Paul Ferrante stated that the 2022/23 season was a memorable one.

“It reminded me so much of the 2015-16 season Virtus season,” he said.

“Like all teams, we had our ups and downs, mainly injuries, which affected our consistency between November and February, however, the team always kept its focus. Having secured a playoff spot, we knew we needed to look at the bigger picture.

“When players returned from injury and with the inclusion of Owens and Bates in the team, things started to look good. There was a fantastic group of players, sponsors, great supporters, and together with the support from our respective families, all contributed to this team’s successful season.”

Maltese-Australian guard Matt Attard joined Starlites at the beginning of the season. His threat from long-range proved fruitful at various moments of the season and added to his defensive capabilities.

“Huge credit is due to the Starlites organisation in having such a strong nursery producing great local talent, and then to being able to find the right pieces to add to the already-stacked team. We were a team with weapons right through the roster, and everyone on the team knew exactly what they brought to the table.”

Young Malta international Matthew Scerri, unfortunately, had a sad ending to the season when he had to limp off in the Finals Series and is set to miss out on the forthcoming Games of the Small States of Europe to be staged in Malta.

Despite this personal setback, Scerri displayed a positive mindset and celebrated his team’s league success.

“It was an indescribable feeling to end this season on such a positive note,” he said.

“Winning four out of a possible five competitions showed us the true chemistry and depth of our squad. All the members of the squad put in a lot of hours into training, both for team practices and waking up early in the morning for individual practice.

“We have had quite a few bumps on the road this season, having played only a handful of games with a full, healthy squad due to injuries. I am extremely proud of how this motivated everyone to push harder, with all the players, from the oldest to the youngest, showing significant improvements on the court.

“Ultimately, we managed to come together as a unit and pull one rope for a back-to-back championship.”

‘Great chemistry’

Another product of the long-standing Starlites nursery are the Felice Pace brothers, Alec and Ian. Starlites’ young captain, Alec, who was also voted the MVP for the Finals Series, gave merit to their greatest rivals this season, Mellieħa Libertas.

“Mellieħa were a very worthy opponent who showed that they were well coached in the way they prepared for each game. That made for an interesting and balanced start to each game, but I believe our consistency, intensity, and discipline, apart from our incredible competitiveness, set us apart and drove us to build comfortable leads to control each game.

“Our great team chemistry and squad depth was also something I think gave us a great advantage. Our ability to play at this level was a result of a very long season full of learning opportunities through effort, pain, and countless bumps in the road.

“We were able to strive together and produce something special. It felt great to be able to compete and grow with this incredible group of players who ended up being like family.”

Mellieħa coach Christian Narciso, who took the helm of the squad ahead of the start of the season, reflected on the past months.

“This season for Mellieħa Basketball Club has been a huge success,” Narciso said, “If we look at the history of the club, they have been only three years in the first division. This season we had our first-ever Louis Borg Cup success and being in five finals in five competitions is something that was above any imagination at the beginning of the season.

“Unluckily the loss of the best foreigner in the league, Connor Zinaich, just two days after the final trade deadline had a big hit on us. We managed to win the Louis Borg Cup and reach the Finals of the BOV League.

“My feelings are that every one of my players tried their best and congratulations to Starlites for winning the league. We are up there, and we want to continue the good job next season and try to maintain this group of special players. Now is the time to relax after a tough season and then think about the club and my future.”

Injury problems

The northerners’ skipper David Bugeja also believed Mellieħa had a good season.

“We managed to get into all the finals this year and also finished first in the League during the regular season. Unfortunately, in all finals we had major injuries and managed to secure just the Louis Borg Cup,” Bugeja said.

“Our team has a very good nucleus of players, from young to experienced, and a professional front office together with a great coach. In the league finals, Starlites managed to peak at the right time, and kudos to them for the amazing games they were playing.

“We fought as hard as we could, but we could not manage to beat them. I am confident that next year we will have an even better season.”

The younger of the Felice Pace brothers, Ian, also referred to the injuries suffered by various elements in the Naxxar squad during the season and also the bond created with the import players at the final stretch of the season.

“This season was a real rollercoaster for us. We experienced many injuries which hampered our progress in the league. Luckily, we were back to full strength just before the playoffs,” Ian Felice Pace said.

“Our imports really lead the way in the playoffs, bringing energy and intensity in every session which prepared us perfectly for our games. I would like to thank our supporters who were the sixth man on the court.

“The constant cheers and encouragement gave us an extra boost to fight harder for every possession”.

The Starlites import team for the last part of the season consisted of Darius George, who joined Starlites right at the start of the season and featured all throughout as well as Zekiah Owens, who joined the team at mid-season and the returning Jacob Bates who was part of the championship squad last season and re-joined Starlites in the final trading window in February.

George cherished his first stint as a professional player outside his native country.

“These past eight months have been good to me in Malta. The season had its ups and downs, but we found so much success in this league this year,” he said.

“We won four out of five cups, which is great, especially for my first year. The finals were physical from the jump but that’s what we expected”.

Owens admitted that he quickly found his feet locally. “Shortly after landing in Malta, I knew that we had a special group of guys,” he said.

“There was just so much genuine love going around off the court with this club. And that same energy transferred straight to the court. Showing up midway through a season is not the easiest of tasks, but the chemistry with this group was undeniable. We were able to accomplish a massive feat winning the first three of the four cups throughout the season, and then ultimately taking the championship trophy back home.”

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