FORMER Hunters junior Ben Simmons lived up to the hype and hysteria he has generated by leading Louisiana State University to an 89-75 victory over a tenacious Newcastle All-Stars at Newcastle Basketball Stadium on Saturday.
A capacity crowd of almost 2000, the biggest for a game at the Broadmeadow venue in more than 25 years, packed in to see the NBA-bound 19-year-old play his first game for the LSU Tigers, and he did not disappoint.
Melbourne-born Simmons learnt to play basketball at Broadmeadow when his father, Dave, moved their family to Newcastle for the final playing years of his National Basketball League career with the Falcons and first as a coach with the Hunter Pirates.
‘‘I first started playing in Canberra when I was probably four or five, then I came to Newcastle and started playing, then Melbourne, so they’re all kind of my home,’’ Simmons said.
‘‘I just call Australia home. I don’t really have a city.’’
After three straight national high school championships with his Orlando-based Montverde Academy, Simmons is expected to play just one college season with LSU before nominating for the 2016 NBA Draft, from which he is projected to be one of the first players selected.
‘‘People watching me stretch, it was crazy to me, and shooting around before the game, then hearing my name called and everyone cheering, it was a great feeling and a humbling experience,’’ he said.
‘‘It’s hard to get used to still – the amount of people and fans that we have as a team, and me and [Australian teammate] Darcy [Malone] coming back here and having everyone scream your name and number, and talking to you – it’s kind of surreal.
‘‘The last time I set foot in here, I was really young. I couldn’t dunk, or do the things I can do now, so it was fun and good to see so many familiar faces around here.’’
On court for almost 37minutes, Simmons demonstrated all of his skills in finishing with a game-high 22points to go with 10 rebounds, four assists, three blocked shots and two steals. Playing point guard for most of the game, the 208-centimetre all-court phenomenon was content to drive and dish early on but he eventually looked to create his own opportunities on offence.
He followed a two-handed dunk in the third quarter with a pair of one-handed stuffs in the fourth, but the All-Stars made him work hard for his points.
‘‘It’s just kind of weird being here and playing my first game as an LSU player here,’’ he said. ‘‘I think we played pretty well for our first game and we stepped up in the second half.’’
LSU’s Australian tour continued with a game in Sydney against the Kings on Sunday night, and more games are scheduled this week in Brisbane and Melbourne.
‘‘We wanted to make sure we got Ben activated and get used to the college game, and we want him to get used to playing because he’s going to have to play a lot of minutes for us,’’ LSU coach Johnny Jones said.
‘‘But at the same time, we know that a lot of fans came out to see him, so we wanted to make sure they had a great experience.’’
Newcastle led 24-18 at quarter-time but LSU took control in the second term to lead 42-36 by half-time and never trailed again. Guest players Alex Desroches (15points), Tom Dawson (15) and Mitch Rueter (12) led the All-Stars in scoring.
NEWCASTLE’S Suzy Batkovic scored a game-high 16 points and ripped down seven rebounds to lead Australia to a 61-41 win over New Zealand in the first game of the FIBA Oceania Championships at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne on Saturday night.
Captaining the Opals, the triple Olympic medallist was steady from start to finish as Australia took control of the two-game series that will determine automatic qualification for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro next year.
Batkovic, a three-time Women’s National Basketball League Most Valuable Player, also blocked three shots and had one steal and one assist. Fellow Newcastle Hunters product Katie Ebzery came off the bench and contributed four points and two rebounds.
The result means the Tall Ferns must win the second game in Tauranga on Monday by more than 21 points to win the series and displace the Opals as Oceania’s Olympic representatives.