The most successful weekend in Sussex Junior basketball history took place this weekend at the National Basketball Performance centre in Manchester. The Worthing Thunder Juniors had both under 14 and 16 teams competing for the most prestigious event in basketball, the play-off final fours. Having finished joint top of the south premier league, the under 14 team coached by Mark Richards had a comfortable route to the finals disposing of Milton Keynes and Sheffield Sharks by 27 and 22 points respectively. Facing the City of Birmingham in the semi-final was also surprisingly comfortable after a slow start. Thunder were always in control leading by 15 points at half time and ran out winners 99-72 led by 37 points from Cameron Hildreth and 16 from Abdou Gaye. “The support from the family and friends was fantastic” said Mark Richards, “One down and one to go”, as everyone moved into the main hall for the under 16 team to face Newham Youngbloods.
Thunder had fallen short twice in the league to Newham but knew what to expect and having had an equally easy path to get to the finals this game was to be very different. A 45 point first round defeat of Bristol and an 18 point victory over Leicester Dynamite wasn’t expected but showed signs of what the team were capable of. “These are one off games, anything can happen”, quoted Daniel Hildreth, coach of the under 16 team who also finished joint top of the South Premier League. “All the hard work and preparation comes down to 2 games in 2 days”. Thunder were ready though and led from start to finish with a lead peaking at 13 at one stage in the second half. In a low scoring affair, Blaize Sagna led Thunder with 16 points supported by a stella 13 points, 19 rebounds and 3 blocks from Hosana Kitenge, one of which had everyone in the hall on their feet! As the buzzer sounded the bench stormed the court along with the under 14 team, as joint celebrations of what could be were now a realistic prospect.
Sunday’s finals saw a reversal of order, with the under 16s matching up against recent national cup winners, Haringey Hawks. In the 3 previous meetings, Thunder held a 2-1 advantage but this was a final, on the big stage, with everything at stake. In a very tightly contested first quarter neither team led by more than 3 points and a basket from Colin Luzinda cut the lead to 1, with Thunder trailing 19-18. Worthing had the better of the second quarter with scores coming from 7 different players, which gave them the edge at the half leading 38-34. A 9-2 run coming out of the break saw Thunder lead by 11 but Haringey were certainly not going to give up and battled on to win a scrappy 3rd quarter by 2 points and again reducing Thunder’s advantage to just a single basket 52-50. The crowd were being treated to a very highly competitive game of basketball and more was to come. Some great team defence and slick passing enabled Thunder to stay on top throughout the quarter, a huge 3 from Lewis Jee and another from Hildreth following a time gave Thunder a 12 point lead with under 3 minutes to play. From there it was a case of holding on and seeing the game out and that’s just what they did. The fans were waiting in anticipation for the buzzer to sound and as it did the players rushed on to the floor jumping and bumping each other to a standing ovation from the spectators. Shortly after the Trophy was awarded, the inevitable MVP was announced. England junior international Hosanna Kitenge had 16 points, 17 rebounds, 5 assists and 6 blocks. He was supported by Leo Musahul with 17 points and 11 rebounds and Colin Lucinda and Cameron Hildreth finished with 12 each.
“It was a total team effort evident in the fact we had 5 guys in double figures’ Hildreth said. “These boys were told on day one of training that’ll believe we could win a championship and they proved me right. We have such passion and a truly respectful group of young men and we are all so grateful for the support, it’s a weekend we will cherish forever”.
The masses then trouped back to court 3 for the under 14 final where Thunder was the theme. Worthing were up against south premier rivals London Lewisham Thunder. Having split games during the regular season, both winning on their respective home courts, it was going to be another nail biter.
London drew first blood with a fast break lay-up and an offensive put back and a jump shot, but Cameron Hildreth scored 7 straight points to give Worthing their first lead. London then went on a run before baskets from Hickingbotham, Hipperson and 1 from Abdou Gaye handed Worthing the advantage once again. This was the pattern throughout the first quarter as the teams were separated by a single point after 1 period of play. It wasn’t until the last 3 minutes that Worthing were able to pull away, 7 straight points from Max Gausden and a lay-up on the buzzer for Martin Kibuuka gave Worthing a 10 point cushion going into the half time break. The start of the second half saw the under 16 team put their celebrations on hold, drums, horns, and chanting from the side-lines seemed to fuel Worthing into action whose lead peaked at 16 mid way through the 3rd quarter. But London weren’t finished off yet. An 8 point turn around in the last 3 mins gave London a fighting chance as Worthing’s lead was back to single digits once again and another case of 10 minutes to seal the deal. Fortunately, they did just that, with every basket from London, Worthing had an answer of their own, and a mini run saw the lead push out to 15 and as the seconds ticked down the fans were in full force! It was almost an impossible task but somehow they had pulled it off, 2 teams, 2 age groups, 2 hours apart as history was made. They all piled on the court to celebrate such a momentous achievement. Worthing finished the game 87-72 behind the MVP performance of Hildreth who finished with 34 points, 10 rebounds, 7 rebounds, 6 steals and 4 assists. Abode Gaye was a standout performer with 21 points and 12 rebounds and Gadsden finished with 13 points and 10 boards.
Co-chair of the club Marnie Williams was understandably emotional after the game, “Oh my God, did that really just happen! I am so delighted for everyone involved, who have put so much time and effort into creating a professional junior brand and this makes it all worth it. To see so many supportive parents, none of which have a voice left is testament to what we pride ourselves as one family. I have to make a special mention to both Secure Site UK and PW Fitness who have made a huge contribution to help support us in achieving our goals this year”. She also had this to say regarding the club, “Our coaches have done a fantastic job with these boys, the players are a credit to them, their parents and the junior programme. There are exciting times ahead and the future is very bright”.
To win a national championship is not easy in any sport at any level, Thunder have done this twice on the same day, which makes it even more special and shows the quality of coaching and youth talent in Sussex.