Rockets are number 1



AFTER 23 years of blood, sweat and tears, the Rockhampton Stadium Nightclub Rockets are the number one team in Australia.

The Rockets last night celebrated the city's first national championship after a courageous 103-99 grand final victory over the Hobart Chargers at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre.

"It's surreal - the guys are going to saviour this for a really long time," said Rockets captain Darren Richardson, who announced his retirement after the match after 21 seasons.

"I'm done, I could not ask for a better finish."

The Rockets booked their place in yesterday's decider after a thrilling 100-93 victory over the Sandringham Sabres while the Chargers beat the Melbourne Tigers 128-126 in overtime in Saturday night's semi-finals.

Rockets big man and grand final MVP Ryan McDade came alive in the second half yesterday after the QABL champions trailed Hobart 55-53 at the main break.

McDade, who finished with a massive 24 points and 19 rebounds, levelled scores 65-all with a slam dunk mid-way through the third quarter before Hobart guard Mark Banovic and Rockets veteran Ben Thompson exchanged three-point bombs.

With 49 seconds left in the third, a three-point play by Thompson put the Rockets in front 82-77 but Banovic reduced the gap to just three points on the buzzer.

Hobart's American import Chuck Long got the final quarter under way in style with a steal and dunk but Rockets point guard Rhys Martin had the large - and loud - contingent of Rockhampton supporters back on their feet with a three-pointer.

With seven minutes to play, a one-handed dunk by Stephen Weigh extended the Rockets lead to 89-84 before Hobart hit back with a treble of three-pointers to Robert Inches, Banovic and former Cairns star Anthony Stewart.

When Stewart knocked down two free throws, the Chargers had one hand on the title leading 97-92 but they did not count the Rockets' never-say-die spirit into the equation. McDade and Weigh were flawless from the stripe to take the scores to 97-96 and McDade put the Rockets back in the lead 98-97 with one minute to play.

Martin all but secured victory when he knocked down two free throws but Long kept the Chargers' title hopes alive to take the scores to 100-99 with 30 seconds on the clock. With 13 seconds left, Stewart fouled Rockets' unsung hero Saulius Dumbliauskas, with the big Lithuanian hitting one of his two shots.

Like all season, the Rockets defence came to the party in the final seconds, with Martin sealing the victory with two free throws at the death to spark wild celebrations.

Rockets coach Neal Tweedy, who is expected to announce his coaching future in coming days, described his team's performance as "one of our best".

"It's just surreal," an ecstatic Tweedy said.

"When we were down by five (points) with two-and-a-half (minutes) to go we thought it was nearly over but these guys played with guts and they have all season.

"It was one of our best games. That was a tough team we played and it was a great game."

Tweedy praised the city's basketball program, which has been chasing an elusive national championship for over two decades.

"I think we run one of the best programs in Australia," he said.

McDade, who was also named in the national finals all star team, said the Rockets' bond on-and-off the court was the difference.

"We're all good friends and we all work hard together and you see that on the court."

"I've never won a national championship before so this is new to me - it's been eight years since I've won a title."

Retiring crowd favourite Thompson, who hit a game-high 27 points alongside Stewart, said the all-conquering Rockets' team of 2008 would go down in history.

"You play the whole year for that," he said.

"It's a once in a lifetime team, I don't think the QABL will see a team like it again.

"That's the biggest win I've had (in my career)."

On Saturday night, the Rockets led 75-71 at the final break before holding out Sandringham in a thrilling fourth quarter.

Weigh was superb in the seven-point win, hitting a game-high 27 points, at an impressive 57% from the field, while McDade also starred with 25 points and 11 rebounds.

American sharp-shooter Jermaine Maybank was Sandringham's best, finishing with 25 points, while the Rockets' resilient defence restricted Sabres big man and former South Dragons NBL player Simon Conn to just 16 points.

In the other semi, a Daryl Corletto three-point buzzer beater for the Tigers sent their clash with Hobart in overtime.

It was either team's game in overtime, with the final shot of the match by the Tigers failing to fall to give the Chargers victory.

The Townsville Flames made it double celebrations for Queensland teams yesterday, clinching back-to-back national women's championships.

It also the second year in-a-row the Queensland champions have completed a men's and women's championship double.

The Flames, who edged out the Kilysth Cobras 77-71 in the semi, overpowered the Sydney Comets 73-57 in yesterday's grand final, with forward Cherie Smith named MVP.

The Rockets return home at 10.10am today on Tiger Airways.



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