Starlites, Mellieha confirm spot in John Tabone Shield final
This year’s John Tabone Shield finalists were officially confirmed on Sunday with Starlites JSD and Mellieha Libertas back against each other in a second consecutive final this season after the Super Cup on October 1.
While the first title bout was a result of last season’s achievements, this time around both sides have been in inspired form this past month to eliminate the rest of the competition for a spot.
STARLITES JSD 99
(17-26, 22-18, 35-21, 25-21)
Sunday’s main semifinal between the title holders and newly revitalised Hibernians was a tale of two halves and Starlites captain Alec Felice Pace believes it was a battle against an organised Hibs team which forced them to stay focused.
“First of all congratulations to Hibs because they were a really tough team today,” Felice Pace told the Times of Malta.
“They came in and put everything into it from the start and we could tell that even their game plan was really set up well. So hats off to their coach for preparing them and the players for being a really strong opponent.”
Asked about the secret to being the only unbeaten side so far since the return to play in October, the Malta international said it was the mentality of playing each game as a final.
“This year we’re going to take every game as a final. That’s the mentality and we’re going to keep pushing every time, trying to get it better than the previous game,” Felice Pace said.
In fact, looking at the final of the Shield, the game will be ‘a normal game of basketball’ for the Naxxar side.
“We’re going to give our best and so will they – it’s a final after all. But we’re still going to be on the court surrounded by those four lines like any other game.”
One common observation shared by many stakeholders of the local game is that the Starlites nucleus has been together for many seasons and Felice Pace echoed this when describing their apparent flowing dynamic on court.
“I love my team – we are a family,” Felice Pace noted, “we’ve grown up together and we’ve been playing together for a number of years. We are still a relatively young group so every year we are going to keep growing stronger.”
Felice Pace has been as free-scoring as ever this new season and has averaged 18 points a game in the Shield. While it is usually the foreign import players who average the most points, Starlites have a local addition to their top point-getters in Felice Pace.
“I try to give my best all the time and I’m always trying to set the standards as high as possible for everyone – holding myself and everyone else accountable, “ he explained.
“We have to push each other as much as we can because that’s how we are going to get the best out of our team.
“The Americans we have on our team are great guys and great characters so that is why I think they’ve gelled in so well with the team and they have already adjusted to us – they fit in perfectly with our style of run and gun at high pace all the time.”
On Sunday, Ivan Demcesen opened the game’s scoring with a freethrow but Starlites took the lead immediately with a Davonte Craven drive on the next possession. Calvin Whipple replied with a three-pointer. Kurt Xuereb gave the Naxxar side a three-point lead but Nick Vasovic hit from three-point range to tie things up after the game’s opening rush.
The matchup which had already been a tale of two favourites for the cup was living up to its billing as it became a constant change of leads between the two sides, Hibs now leading by five with 3.41 remaining in the opening quarter.
Hibernians were up by double digits at the start of the second quarter and they made the most out of Starlites’ inconsistent shooting as Mason Hix and Whipple three-pointers put them 17 points ahead.
Starlites finally broke the Hibs run with an and-one from Felice Pace. Louie Farrugia then hit from midrange to bring it back down to 14.
The margin was at seven points with 2.32 to go in the first half as the Starlites began to regain their composure. Meanwhile, their defence was mostly revolving around double-teaming Demcesen who was Hibs’ go-to on when looking for the hoop.
After the break, the gap continued to get smaller and Felice Pace gave Starlites the lead with a three-pointer midway through the quarter. Christian Hinckson hit twice as momentum was fully with the Naxxar side.
A Whipple three-pointer eased the pressure off Hibs at the start of the fourth quarter with the two sides separated by eight points. The American forward was now carrying the team’s offence but the Paolites’ problem became an issue of nerves and unnecessary fouls. In fact, when they calmed down, Vasovic and Whipple both scored threes to bring the deficit down to six.
The last four minutes were crucial if a comeback was at all possible and Hibs had all their starters on court to try and make that happen. To their advantage was Malik Lorquet’s fifth foul but Hinckson was playing at his best to keep up Starlites’ lead and confirm their spot in the final.
STARLITES JSD A. Felice Pace 23, C. Hinckson 20, M. Attard 11, I. Felice Pace 3, M. Fabri, D. Craven 16, L. Farrugia 2, K. Xuereb 16, M. Lorquet 8.
HIBERNIANS C. Whipple 30, P. Attard, L. Farrugia 2, N. Vasovic 12, A. Axiaq, M. Attard 7, M. Hix 16, I. Demcesen 19.
Referees B. Vassallo, A. Bayraktar, J. Londono.
Mellieha spoil Cassar, Shoults debut
MELLIEHA LIBERTAS 100
VALLETTA FIGHTERS 80
(22-24, 29-14, 26-18, 23-24)
In the day’s earlier semi-final, Mellieha were in fine form as they dominated proceedings against Valletta Fighters.
David Bugeja hit first for Mellieha with a layup and a three-pointer. Kwame Thompson and Tedrick Wolfe both scored before Isaac Bonett made it an 11-0 run for Libertas.
Valletta finally began to charge and with 5.32 left in the first quarter, Mellieha were in foul trouble. Desean Mattox drove up to the hoop to make matters worse for the Northerners.
New signing Neil Cassar was a man on a mission on his debut even after having started the game from the bench, scoring seven of his total of 17 points in the first quarter before Shoults, who was also introduced midway through the rubber, hit his first three-ball for the citizens to tie things up at 20-all with 1.31 to go.
Robert Bonnici and Corrado Mercurio made the most of confusion in the Valletta defence to hit a pair of threes and open the second quarter scoring with Mellieha up by four points.
Keith Charleston got Valletta’s first of the quarter but Mellieha’s Mercurio made it a nine-point game with a three-pointer and Thompson opened a double-digit lead with another drive. This battle continued until the halftime buzzer as Mellieha finished the first half up by 13.
Mellieha started the second half with the same intensity as the first and opened a 20-point gap. Shoults hit another three-ball but Wolfe brought the Libertas supporters to their feet with an acrobatic dunk.
The Northerners were in foul trouble yet again but it was little bother for them as with 1.50 to go in the third quarter, Ian Terribile’s clan were leading by 25.
Valletta needed a mammoth fourth quarter and Mellieha’s Wolfe was in no mood to help them out, driving non-stop towards the hoop. Ryan Carabott and Bugeja both hit from deep to keep them 20+ points apart. To make matters worse, Mellieha were in the bonus for the second time in the game.
With the last few minutes remaining in the encounter, and Mellieha having reached the 100-point mark, their priority was defence and they held out to book their place in the final.
MELLIEHA LIBERTAS T. Wolfe 26, D. Bugeja 15, R. Bonnici 6, V. Jandric 13, I. Bonett 6, R. Carabott 4, K. Thompson 21, E. Valdespina 2, C. Mercurio 7.
VALLETTA FIGHTERS K. Charleston 30, R. Rutkauskas, S. Saakian, R. Curmi, D. Mattox 14, M. Farrugia, J. Lisondra 9, P. Shoults 8, U. Satyanarayan 2, N. Cassar 17, D. Militello.
Referees Z. Dobrosaviljevic, N. Azzopardi, F. Ciurariu.
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