United fire ominous warning in GF rematch
IT was always going to be close. After a pulsating NBL grand final series last season, Melbourne United and Adelaide 36ers were always going to play out another epic at Melbourne Arena.
The 36ers bounced out of the blocks on Sunday, their customary up-tempo style leaving United a tad flat-footed after seven days on the practice court.
The visitors had, after all, tuned up with an impressive win over competition favourites Sydney Kings on Friday night.
We knew Nathan Sobey would be handful.
And he was, dropping a game-high 17 points in the first half to go with five rebounds and three assists.
We knew Daniel Johnson had to be stopped.
And he was, with United relentless in its intent to shut down the versatile Sixers big man.
We knew, once more, that it would be close.
And it was, with four points, no points, three points, and three points separating the combatants at every change.
The biggest question, arguably, hanging over United's head going into the season was how the reigning NBL champions was going to replace Casey Prather.
DJ Kennedy had the job, on paper, but a series of unfortunate events conspired against the American's efforts to build any sort of momentum.
Ring collector Prather had taken the NBL by storm - almost nonchalantly - winning three titles in as many seasons.
We'd only seen glimpses of Kennedy's best before Sunday's morale-boosting three-point win over the in-form 36ers at Melbourne Arena.
Kennedy, who sat out last Sunday's loss to New Zealand due to an ankle issue just days after overcoming a midfoot sprain, was influential at both ends yesterday.
After starting on the bench Kennedy exploded into the action with intent, pulling down three offensive rebounds in the first quarter alone.
It took United almost an entire quarter last Sunday against New Zealand Breakers to register its first o-board.
Not on Sunday, Josh Boone grabbed the first two before Kennedy and Alex Pledger followed suit.
United coach Dean Vickerman ordered more physicality last week, and with it, mandated wrestling and grappling drills to start each session this week.
It had an immediate effect.
Despite trailing by 10 points early in the second quarter United weathered the Sobey-led ambush all while wrestling its own shot, going at a meagre 28 per cent from the field in the first quarter.
Casper Ware and Chris Goulding the worst affected, going into the half-time break with a combined three points from nine attempts.
Such is United's depth, or shall we say strength, that despite the wayward stroke play the scores were level.
David Barlow could not have started his 17th season as a professional any better, while Mitch McCarron is relentless at both ends.
After doing the job on Johnson evergreen Barlow knocked down the game-winning three-pointer to break the deadlock with a tick over a minute to play.
Just hours after Andrew Bogut's Sydney Kings roared to life across the Tasman, the NBL champions issued the league a reminder of its own: You have to go through Melbourne to win the whole thing.