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GAME REPORT

Lual-Acuil's Big Night as Melbourne Claim Throwdown

Jo Lual-Acuil set it up and helped finish the job for Melbourne United in Thursday night's 94-87 Throwdown victory over the South East Melbourne Phoenix despite giving up 21 straight points either side of half-time.

It was the first Throwdown clash at John Cain Arena between the Melbourne rivals since that spectacular meeting back on December 12, and this one was quite a rollercoaster ride as well.

It was the Lual-Acuil show in the first quarter for United as he strengthened his claims to be MVP, Best Defensive Player and Most Improved Player all at once. He put up 15 points and two blocks in the first quarter alone.

On the back of that Melbourne led by as much as 14 but the game underwent a dramatic transformation either side of half-time.

The Phoenix went on a 17-2 run to close the first half including scoring the last 11 points to be up one. They then scored the opening 10 of the third quarter to take that lead to 11 and have all the momentum.

However, Melbourne was able to steady the ship and with Lual-Acuil ending up contributing again in a fascinating battle with Zhou Qi and Chris Goulding, Caleb Agada, Ariel Hukporti and Shea Ili along for the ride, United proved too strong to retain top spot in the NBL.

It was a career scoring night for Lual-Acuil going for 30 points on 11/13 shooting to go with nine rebounds. Goulding added 15 points and three assists, Hukporti 11 points and five rebounds, Agada 10 points and five boards, and Ili eight points, eight assists and three steals.

Melbourne coach Dean Vickerman was obviously happy with the start and then how they were able to turn things back around in the third quarter too.

"The focus for us was to certainly try and get a better start so we ticked that one off. I thought we came out with the right energy, we moved the ball well and to have a 30-point first quarter and be solid defensively meant it was a really good start for us," Vickerman said.

"Then there was a bit of a lull midway through the second quarter and then we went on a scoring drought, and missed a bunch of layups, a couple of dunks and I didn’t think there was a huge problem with our offence other than not finishing plays.

"But those transitioned to them getting fast break points and attacking the rim. I didn’t realise it was a 21-0 run they went on so we were disappointed to go into the half down, and I didn’t like how we came out in the third. We had a standout timeout which I haven’t had in a while to challenge the group, but we found a way."

Mitch Creek top-scored for South East Melbourne with 23 points while Izayah Le'afa added 13 but he did shoot 5/17 and took some perhaps ill-advised threes late. 

Both Brandon Ashley (13 points, five rebounds) and Zhou Qi (13 points, eight boards, four blocks) had their moments down low too for the Phoenix with captain Kyle Adnam adding 12 points and the returning Xavier Munford 10 to go with five assists. 

Phoenix coach Simon Mitchell couldn’t explain the slow start but will hope to rectify it before Saturday.

"It was a game of bookends for us. We were really good in the second quarter and third quarter, and we started to execute the game plan after we were off kilter to start the game," Mitchell said.

"I can't explain why but we blew our coverages, the communication wasn’t out there and it wasn’t the occasion because these guys have been through all this. 

"I'm not sure why we were down in that area but we blew way too many coverages early, and then it was a little bit the same down the stretch and we failed to execute. There are some areas there for us to get better in."

Talk about making a statement to start and Jo Lual-Acuil did that in the way only he can. Up one end, he delivered a huge block on Zhou Qi who was trying to finish at the rim. Then up the other he hit two threes and had 10 points in the opening minutes with Melbourne up 12-4.

He kept going and put up 15 points and two blocks in the opening quarter and United were able to ride that to a 30-17 advantage at quarter-time.

United were still in control leading 39-25 after four quick Caleb Agada points midway through the second term, and then 41-31 after a Jack White spin move and dunk, but then the Phoenix took over.

Inspired by Mitch Creek who would go into half-time with 14 points, the Phoenix got on a roll to close out the half on a 17-2 run, which included Xavier Munford fouled attempting a half-court buzzer beater.

The Phoenix took all the momentum and a one-point lead into the half-time break and that continued in remarkable fashion to start the second half.

Zhou Qi made an early statement scoring on Lual-Acuil before Creek and Kyle Adnam drained three balls leading to a furious Dean Vickerman timeout. It didn’t help immediately with Brandon Ashley giving the Phoenix an 11-point lead with the 21-0 run.

Matthew Dellavedova eventually stopped the rot with a three two and-a-half minutes into the half for Melbourne before Ariel Hukporti hit a couple of nice baskets and then Chris Goulding connected from deep.

Ryan Broekhoff responded in kind for his first points of the night and with some nice plays late in the third term from Munford and Ashley, the Phoenix were still up 68-64 by three quarter-time.

Melbourne retook the lead with an 8-3 run to open the fourth period before a huge flush from Zhou Qi sparked a 5-2 run for the Phoenix.

South East Melbourne built on that again including three balls from Creek and Izayah Le'afa to be up four, but then United answered with the next six points to be up two with just over two minutes on the clock.

Lual-Acuil got past Qi far too easily to put Melbourne up four and soon after Goulding hit a corner three to make it a five-point game to secure the win.

Both teams have another game in Round 12 with the Phoenix hosting the Brisbane Bullets on Saturday before United take on the New Zealand Breakers on Sunday, both back at John Cain Arena.

HUNGRY JACK'S NBL ROUND 12

MELBOURNE UNITED 94 (Lual-Acuil 30, Goulding 15, Hukporti 11)

SOUTH EAST MELBOURNE PHOENIX 87 (Creek 23, Le'afa 13, Zhou Qi 13) 

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