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Watch: Coppa dedicates victory to ‘best friend’ John Tabone as Luxol win women’s Shield

Caffe Moak Luxol players celebrate with the John Tabone Shield trophy. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

STARLITES JSD 54

CAFFE MOAK LUXOL 57

(18-14, 15-11, 2-16, 19-16)

The newly named women’s John Tabone Shield could not have finished in a more emotional way on Sunday as Caffe Moak Luxol triumphed in the final against Starlites JSD to lift the trophy and honour the late Tabone, one of the club’s co-founders who passed away last December.

It was a final which brought to an end Starlites’ unbeaten run and levelled the two teams in terms of trophies won so far this season after the Naxxar side had won the Super Cup in October.

Speaking to the Times of Malta after the victory, Luxol coach Santino Coppa, who like Tabone was a former Malta national team coach and is a household name at the Pembroke club, said he was doubly content with winning the trophy– both to honour Tabone’s memory as well as to give his players some deserved celebration.

Caffe Moak Luxol coach Santino Coppa speaks to the Times of Malta after winning the John Tabone Shield. Video: Chris Sant Fournier

“Today I am very, very happy for two reasons. The first is that Joe Tabone, after whom this Cup is named, was my best friend in Malta – a great maestro in life and a great coach,” he said.

“My secret was that I knew it was almost impossible to win, but in my heart deep down, I was hoping for this victory. So, thank you John!

“The second reason is because I’m working with these young players and it gives me a lot of satisfaction because they want to play. I’m happy for these players because they deserve it – they deserve it because they gave their heart and they follow me in training.

“I won a lot in Malta, both with the national team and also with the club, but this victory for me is of great importance for the girls and for the club.

On the forefront of a close but crucial victory for the Violets was import player Tayler Bennet who has been in inspired form since joining the team and Sunday’s game was a testament to this as she finished with a triple-double of 25 points, 20 rebounds, and 10 steals.

When asked about what she thought of the sides’ performance, Bennett lauded her team’s defence, particularly when trying to contain free-scoring Starlites captain Stephanie De Martino who nonetheless finished the game with a double-double of 24 points and 15 rebounds.

Caffe Moak Luxol guard Tayler Bennett speaks to the Times of Malta after winning the John Tabone Shield. Video: Chris Sant Fournier

“I thought our main focus today was defence, Bennett explained.

“We put a priority on focus on it in practice, going over how we’re going to play all their plays, especially their two main scorers, Steffi and the foreigner. So, I believe that our defence was really sound today as well as getting to the basket, attacking, and getting fouled on offence.

In five games in the Shield, Bennett has averaged 16.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per game. Bennett appears to have fit in smoothly into the Luxol squad and the American guard seems to agree.

“I love it, she said, “I’ve enjoyed Malta so far and I love my team.

“Everybody’s been great. Coach has been great. It’s very intense, and very energetic, which is fun to play for. But everything’s been perfect so far.”

De Martino opened proceedings with a quick layup a minute into the game. Bennett scored first for the Violets as both sides looked to shake off a number of missed early-game shots.

Sarah Fenech Pace finally broke the deadlock with a close layup with 6.55 left in the quarter. The Luxol youngster hit another as the Violets were now ahead by four.

Midway through the quarter, De Martino hit her first three of the game, but Sarah Sciberras replied with a layup to keep up the margin. Michela Zammit Cordina then levelled with an and-one play and Mikela Riolo put Starlites ahead with a three-ball. This momentum remained as the Naxxar side led by four by the end of the quarter.

The same rhythm was on the cards in the next quarter as Starlites began to open the gap. At the other end, Bennett was the only one making her shots as Luxol were struggling on offence.

Nonetheless, a fastbreak score from the American – at that moment the game’s top scorer – and a pair of made freeshots from Anna Fenech Pace brought the game to par with 3.32 to go in the half.

De Martino gave her side the lead again with a three-pointer, becoming the only Starlites player in double digits, and Maria Bonett made it a two-possession game with a pair of made freethrows.

The Malta international then hit again with 33 seconds remaining as the Naxxar side went back to the dressing rooms for halftime ahead at 33-25.

After the change of ends, it was the Violets who hit first with an Anna Fenech Pace score, before Josephine Diaby hit from mid-range to bring the deficit down to four points. Bennett made the most of a Starlites miss as she made no mistake for another two points.

With three minutes gone, Mikela Riolo got Starlites’ first and only third-quarter basket after a show of skill just inside the three-point line.

Momentum was with Luxol in the third quarter and they took their first lead through a Sarah Fenech Pace layup as 4.14 remained in the rubber. In their favour was the fact that Starlites also faced foul trouble while Bennett made numerous clean steals to keep her side’s lead intact ahead of the final quarter.

De Martino scored with the opening play of the fourth quarter as Andie Saliba brought the game to just a point with a three-pointer.

Lisa Fenech Pace replied for Luxol with one of her own as Anna Fenech Pace was accurate on three of four shots from the line to make it a seven-point game as the Violets were in the bonus yet again.

Steals were once more Starlites’ Achilles heel as Bennett and Mandi Mercieca robbed the ball time and time again. Bennett was now past the 20-point mark as Luxol led by five midway through the quarter.

Riolo freethrows and a De Martino layup brought it down to two as Starlites looked in comeback mode, a well-known characteristic of the team in previous fourth quarters, and De Martino got the crowd believing with a three-ball as 2.58 remained in the game.

With 1.07 to go, and both sides in the bonus, Bennett pushed up to make it a three-point Luxol lead before making one of two freethrows after a foul by Riolo which signalled the end of the game for the Starlites guard.

However, it was a one-point game yet again with the final seconds remaining after another De Martino threeball. Bennett made another one of two freethrows with 23 seconds remaining, and in their next possession, Starlites were robbed again, this time by Sarah Fenech Pace who won a foul in the process and upped the lead back to three to give her side the trophy.

After the final buzzer, Luxol were presented the Shield trophy in the presence of the late Tabone’s family.

STARLITES JSD M. Zammit Cordina 4, M. Riolo 7, A. Saliba 5, M. Fenech, M. Bonett 8, S. De Martino 24, P. Cannon 6, C. Curmi.

CAFFE MOAK LUXOL M. Mercieca, L. Fenech Pace 3, T. Bennett 25, S. Fenech Pace 11, J. Diaby 7, S. Sciberras 2, S. Farrugia, A. Fenech Pace 9.

Referees A. Bayraktar, F. Ciurariu, N. Rincon.

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