In his 100th Melbourne United game, Jo Lual-Acuil jnr’s performance reflected his time with the club as he led them to a 1-0 lead in their NBL semi-final series on Thursday night.
Lual-Acuil jnr went without a shot in the first quarter, then had eight points and a few highlight plays in the second term before taking charge in the second half, finishing with 15 points, seven rebounds and six blocks as United beat the Tasmania JackJumpers 74-63 at John Cain Arena.
United can earn a place in the grand final series with a win in Hobart on Saturday night, if Tasmania win they will play a deciding game three in Melbourne on Monday night.
Lual-Acuil jnr has gone from winning the best sixth man last season to making the this campaign, and he was commanding on this night in a physical, defensive game demanding his teammates remained on task even in the last quarter.
Matthew Dellavedova (11 points, six rebounds and five assists) helped set the tone for Melbourne but he gave his side a scare late when he took a knock on his shooting hand and shot a free throw with his left hand before being subbed out.
I got hit behind the elbow and couldn’t feel my fingers for a few seconds, Dellavedova said.
I threw it up a couple of times and thought it was good but the ball went way short. I had shot the first free throw, so I had to shoot the second one. The boys were giving me a bit of crap about those shots.
It was just a few moments, I’m perfectly fine now.
Josh Adams (16 points) and Jack McVeigh (15 points) led Tasmania.
We have a lot of weapons so I can be patient and bring other players into the game because I know I can get hot quick, Lual-Acuil jnr told ESPN. I trust my instincts on that.
Tasmania coach Scott Roth said his side couldn’t allow Lual-Acuil jnr and Melbourne to win the rebound count in game two after a 52-32 victory on this night.
If one of our bigs has to go and box out Lual-Acuil jnr and take him out of the play, then our guards will need to get back and we will have to gang rebound, Roth said.
Dellavedova was aggressive on offence to open the game and fellow defensive ace Shea Ili joined him as the pair scored from inside and out as United took a 20-15 lead into the first change.
Lual-Acuil jnr was fired up to open the second quarter, pulling in three offensive rebounds early and throwing down a dunk but the JackJumpers stood up to the challenge, with McVeigh scoring in double figures as United’s lead remained at five points going into the second half.
Melbourne tried to put the foot down in the third quarter and run free of the JackJumpers but the NBL newcomers have been tenacious all season when trailing, so they kept fighting despite being 14 points down.
announced this week he wouldn’t enter the NBA draft this year and was remaining with Melbourne for next season, and he showed his NBA level athleticism with a towering block on Adams in the third quarter, followed by a transition dunk courtesy of a Dellavedova pass.
If Lual-Acuil jnr’s stellar season does see him , Hukporti could well inherit his starting centre role.
Import Caleb Agada (16 points) finished the quarter with a blazing hot hand, scoring six late points as Melbourne grew their lead to 62-43 going into the last 10 minutes.
Lual-Acuil jnr blocked former teammate Sam McDaniel early in the last term and Yudai Baba made a hovering reverse lay-up at the other end to push the lead past 20 points.
Tasmania have refused to lose all season and they gritted their teeth and cut the lead to 72-63 late as Melbourne started to rest their players, but would get no closer.
Game two will not be easy with a sellout crowd waiting to cheer on their new heroes at MyState Bank Arena but Melbourne’s pursuit of back-to-back championships is fast reaching its climax as they need just four more wins to do it.
Melbourne United play Tasmania JackJumpers in game two of their best-of-three series at MyState Bank Arena, Hobart, on Saturday at 8pm AEST.