It was another day of celebration for Melbourne United, winning its eighth straight NBL match in front of a delighted John Cain Arena.
The 87-76 triumph over the Illawarra Hawks saw the home side give an even display after a whirlwind first half, including an electric first quarter where United shot at 85 per cent from beyond the three-point arc.
It was the tireless work of bench centre Jo Lual-Acuil that caught the eye of United coach Dean Vickerman and star centre Jock Landale.
Following a 15-point, seven rebound game which included a hot 10-point period through the second quarter, Lual-Acuil received rich praise from Landale.
“I experience it (Lual-Acuil’s scoring ability) in practice a lot – he’s helped me get better defensively because of how good he is offensively,” Landale said.
“Having that comfort to know we don’t have to stretch my minutes out to 35 minutes because Jo (Lual-Acuil) can come in and play for 25 minutes is awesome.
“He’s definitely the best back up big man going around in the league, so for him to keep coming in and producing so much is key to our championship aspirations.”
Landale himself was impressive in the cruisy victory on Sunday. The centre banked 13 points and 11 rebounds in a classy double-double, while also leading the game with five assists.
He was excited by the rapid improvement of Lual-Acuil, who put Illawarra to the sword for most of Sunday’s clash. The young centre was athletic and undeniable, running hot with his shooting and rebounding often to impose his will.
The highlight was a flurry to start the second quarter, where Lual-Acuil slammed back to back buckets, including a fierce dunk, to extend United’s leads.
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Melbourne, and more importantly Lual-Acuil’s, even display against the Hawks highlighted the side’s improvement and depth.
From the get-go, the hosts were on song, draining shots with ease to finish the first quarter with an 85 per cent shooting efficiency from all field goals. Their fast ball movement couldn’t even be undone by fouls, as Illawarra had no answer for the many offensive weapons on United’s roster.
Coach Vickerman acknowledged that the likes of young forward Mason Peatling and Yudai Baba, along with the bonus of a firing Sam McDaniel, had added another element to United’s title hopes.
“I thought the speed that Mason (Peatling) sprinted to cover the floor created wide open threes for others and himself – the energy that he gave to everybody else was infectious,” Vickerman said.
“Sam’s (McDaniel) been playing at a really high level, and he grabbed his opportunity to start last week, so I have to keep rewarding people who perform.
“It’s what I have to continue to do as a coach – whoever is giving us the juice and playing at a high level, I have to continue to reward them.”
It wasn’t all positives for Melbourne. Despite having killed Illawarra in the rebounds battle (46-29), a red-hot first half cooled into a dour second half of the match.
In this period, the high amount of turnovers committed by United allowed the Hawks to win the second half 34-31. Fortunately for United, their extraordinary first half display was enough to still win the match comfortably by 11 points.
The effort didn’t thrill the shrewd Vickerman, who is looking at more ways to improve his side before the play-off series comes around.
“The intent was right to share the basketball, but the one negative for us was that we had 17 turnovers in that game,” he said.
“That’s an area that we have to continue to get better at.
“But early we moved the ball really fast and it was awesome – we were aggressive and shot the ball well.”
Now on a rich vein of winning form, Melbourne United will look to bank another win when they take on the Sydney Kings at John Cain Arena next Saturday night. If Sunday’s win against the Hawks was anything to go by, Melbourne will be chomping at the bit to prove they are worthy of claiming the NBL title in 2021.
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