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R18 Report: In-form United cement home semi-final

Melbourne United have one hand on the minor premiership after out-muscling and out-hustling the Illawarra Hawks to claim an 80-73 win on Thursday night at WIN Entertainment Centre. With two games remaining in the regular season, Melbourne sit alone at the top of the ladder with an 18-8 record. Silky smooth American guard Stephen Holt (game-high 23 points) partnered Chris Goulding (13) in the perimeter assault, as Melbourne prevailed 3-1 in their season series with the Hawks. Illawarra were led by import Kevin Lisch’s 21, while hard-working forward Cody Ellis finished with 17 off the bench. The third-placed Hawks (15-11) have lost three of their past four games and hope to welcome back experienced forward Kirk Penney back from a two-week injury layoff when they host the Townsville Crocodiles on Saturday night. If Melbourne keep hold of top spot, Dean Demopolous will become the first coach in 26 years to guide his team to the minor premiership in his first season. “I’ve really enjoyed my time around (the group),” Demopoulos said, looking back on the season. “I’ve been on a number of teams where it wasn’t as enjoyable. Winning always helps obviously, but even the losing is a little bit easier to take when you like being with the people that you spend so much time with.” Melbourne’s bruising performance cemented their standing as the league’s best road team and should bury any doubts they have the physical and mental toughness to win it all. Illawarra had averaged 98 points in home games this season before being shut down by Melbourne and making just 7/32 three-point shots. The end-to-end shootout everyone expected was anything but. Usually lethal on their home hardwood, Illawarra struggled for just 7/19 first-quarter field goals, including 1-of-7 from downtown, to trail 19-16 at quarter-time. An Ellis three-point play tied the game at 21-all early in the second period but Melbourne’s defence continued to cause problems for Illawarra and lead swelled to 35-27 on Nate Tomlinson’s corner three. The Hawks’ poor offensive spacing didn’t help their cause and they struggled to cope with Melbourne’s aggressive defence. Somehow Illawarra were only down 41-36 at halftime, though it seemed like a lot more after making just 2/13 threes and being out-rebounded 17-15. The hosts cranked up the defence in the second half, taking a 46-43 lead after eight straight points from Ellis. But former Hawks swingman Brad Hill suddenly got hot, scoring eight consecutive points to put Melbourne up 51-46. Tempers flared late in the period when Hawks centre Larry Davidson was whistled for an unsportsmanlike foul on Hill. Kickert also wore an unsportsmanlike foul after referees reviewed the standoff, and Melbourne took a 58-55 lead into the final quarter. The Hawks had no answers down the stretch and will need a more efficient performance against the Crocs. “We are the number one shooting team in the League… unfortunately tonight we just didn’t make them,” Rob Beveridge said post-game. “The purpose of what we were doing was to get the ball in the post and we did an absolute crappy job, and I’ll be all over the guards about that. It’s simply not good enough that we didn’t give (Ogilvy) the ball.” Melbourne will have their final tune-up for the post-season with games against titleholders New Zealand next Friday (away) and Sunday (home).   MELBOURNE UNITED 80 (Holt 23, Goulding 13, Kickert 10) ILLAWARRA HAWKS 73 (Lisch 21, Ellis 17, Ogilvy 11) BOX SCORE
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