Airs create space at the top of the standings, hold off Rams in seesawing affair

THE distance between the top and bottom of the 2020 Sal’s National Basketball League (NBL) Showdown standings got a little greater overnight, as a neck-and-neck contest between the Taranaki Mountainairs and the Canterbury Rams was not decided until the final seconds of play, as the Airs edged out a crafty Rams squad by five points.

CANTERBURY RAMS 19 | 35 | 20 | 18 (92)
TARANAKI MOUNTAINAIRS 23 | 21 | 27 | 28 (97)

[ … FULL MATCH STATS … ]

Prior to their contest against the Rams last night, the Airs were still yet to establish themselves as the clear-cut favourites entering the second phase of the NZNBL season. But, a win over Canterbury would put the ball in the Franklin Bulls’ court and Taranaki came out with meaningful intentions to make this so.

Converting four of their opening seven attempts from the field, it opened up a nice 9-5 lead to establish themselves as the leaders early on in the game, but when you’re led by a player the likes of Taylor Britt, you do not roll over so easy.

Taking the lead midway through the first, 16-12, Canterbury exploited the Airs lack of quickness to force numerous turnovers and run the floor early. However, a nifty turnaround-fadeaway by Marcel Jones highlighted a convenient 7-0 run for Taranaki to quickly return control of the game back into their own hands, and lead 23-19 following the conclusion of the first stanza of play.

It became clear that the Airs wanted their offence to flow primarily through Derone Raukawa, as he downed eight of the team’s 10 opening points in the second quarter. Whereas the Bulls inherited a similar tactic with Britt, as he himself drilled three three-pointers in the same period of time.

Nice work down low in the post by the Rams’ bigs Thomas Webley and Quintin Bailey created all sorts of problems for Taranaki, outworking and out-hustling Jones and teammate Shane Temara in the middle minutes of the second term. Which allowed Canterbury to fight back and take the lead.

Once again though, Britt would cut through the Airs’ defence like a knife through butter, amassing 20 first-half points including three threes to help his side to a 10-point lead after two quarters. However, Raukawa’s 17 points was a lone highlight to draw upon for Doug Courtney during Taranaki’s half-time talk heading into the third.

The Airs would hit back in a big way with an 8-0 run, propelling them back into the game after a sporadic first half that saw a bunch of momentary lapses on the defensive end. Nevertheless, the Rams were able to fend off any further damage for the remainder of the third quarter, as the Airs sought out another scoring run to complete the comeback.

A sneaky dime from Jones found Baxter Fenwick down below the rim to trim the deficit further, as the Airs now found themselves a single basket behind the Rams with the final quarter still to play and the score sitting at 74-71.

Mitchell Dance’s post-move cut the margin to one on their first trip up the floor, but Jones provided the one-two punch with a three to give Taranaki the lead a minute into the final term, setting up last night’s matchup to be a sprint to the finish line.

With both teams tied at 80 points apiece with seven minutes to play, the back-and-forth continued to ensue. Shortly after Temara contributed eight consecutive points to the Airs’ scoring totals, it allowed Raukawa to put a stamp on the game after he struck from deep with a three to give Taranaki a sizeable seven-point lead, concluding an 8-0 run and putting themselves in the driver’s seat of the game.

The Rams, like they so eloquently did on so many occasions to this point, continued to look inside, and Bailey helped trim their deficit to three points after two straight buckets. The Rams managed to handle the Airs’ attempts to run away with the game, as they produced an 8-0 run of their own, momentarily taking back the lead late in the game. But their lead was short-lived following a Jones hook shot 30 seconds later.

Another running hook by Jones once again with 30 seconds remaining, put Taranaki ahead by three and in the process won his team the game, as Raukawa cemented the victory for the Airs with two bonus free-throws to take home the result, 92-97.

Following Britt’s strong second half, he continued to hit the scoreboard on a regular basis, finishing with 31 points with an efficiency of 50 per cent from the field, as well as four rebounds and three steals. Adding to the Rams’ notable player performances, Bailey had himself a solid outing, earning a 14-point 10-rebound double-double in what was the highlight of Canterbury’s persistent frontcourt effort.

Key individual performances for Taranaki, like most previous encounters, are starting to sound a little like a broken record, as both Raukawa and Jones made up almost 50 per cent of their side’s points total. For Raukawa, he accumulated 39 minutes on the court, during which he assembled a stat line of 26 points, six assists and four steals. To make up for his lack of rebounding, Jones made his presence felt on lots of missed shots, gathering 25 points and 16 rebounds.

With the win, the Airs have strung together a tidy little three-game winning streak as they take a commanding hold of the rest of the league with an impressive record of six wins and three losses, a win in front of the Bulls. The Rams deal with the opposite, as they slip to a record of three wins and six losses, sitting at the bottom of the standings by half a game.

A few days of rest now await for both the Airs and the Rams, as the Airs return to action on Tuesday against fellow top-four contenders, the Otago Nuggets. Meanwhile, the Rams size up the Jets a day later as they look for answers on how to turn around their season before the final come into their line of sight.

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