Author: Eli Duxson

First-half fireworks from Cotton tightens grip on first place for Perth

AN emphatic shooting display from Bryce Cotton kept the Adelaide 36ers at bay to win 92-82 and maintain their stronghold at the top of the National Basketball League (NBL) table after winning nine of their last 10 games. This matchup closed the round’s action out again after one of the more unusual outings saw Cotton explode similarly to propel a miraculous second-half fightback from Perth. Adelaide’s first half in that match proved they could match it with the best, but after losing Next Star Josh Giddey on Saturday with what is suspected to be a minor ankle injury, they were going to be tested for the full 40 minutes.

Playing just seven players more than five minutes in their other Round 10 game against South East Melbourne was not something 36ers coach Connor Henry would have the luxury of this time out, as he played 11 players in just the first quarter alone.

It did not affect his players as an evenly poised and efficient shooting performance saw the game tied at 24 heading into the first break. Perth took two minutes to register their first basket and it was 11 first-quarter points from Cotton that kept them in the game.

He maintained that level of output through the second quarter as his 23 first-half points helped the Wildcats to a 51-45 lead at the main break. Both teams were shooting better than 50 per cent, but it was Adelaide’s three more turnovers and seven more fouls which saw them trailing.

Adelaide’s third quarters have historically not been good, and Cotton looked to exploit that early with a heat check from deep that missed. They were on track to reverse this trend as Tony Crocker and Sunday Dech each knocked down three balls as the lead was cut to three.

More turnovers and efficient capitalisation from the ruthless Wildcats quickly put the lead out to double digits as Perth went into the final break up 73-65.

Brandon Paul had just eight points on four attempts to this point and it would require something special from him for Adelaide to get over the line, but he would miss his only shot for the quarter as he looked to facilitate more.

Dech and Keanu Pinder would foul out in consecutive possessions with more than seven minutes to play as foul trouble continued to plague the 36ers as it had all game. Technical fouls on Henry and Crocker gave up easy baskets from the charity stripe and it was an uphill slog from there.

Perth shot 22 of 27 from the line on the back of 26 fouls on Adelaide. The Wildcats conceded just eight free throw attempts for six makes as they remained much more disciplined defensively. Cotton was also fouled twice on three-point attempts which does happen often, but it was disheartening for the 36ers to give up easy points like that.

Adelaide shot 16 per cent better on the night for two more makes including an impressive 50 per cent from deep. The free throws and seven more committed turnovers contributed to their loss, but they allowed Perth to shoot 17 more shots from the floor with a staggering 23 to five offensive rebounding differential. This led to a 24 to seven second chance points difference.

Cotton ended the night with a sensational 36 points, two more than his last game against Adelaide, to go with six assists and two steals. John Mooney took a while to get going after being starved of opportunity early due to the Cotton show, but he managed to get to his double-double with 11 points and 14 rebounds. Mitch Norton (13 points, four assists) enjoyed a solid outing and said their last quarter performance was “pretty special”.

“First half, we wanted to tidy up a few things, I think we really did that in the second,” he said.

Daniel Johnson continued to perform in RAC Arena with 19 points and eight rebounds, as Crocker scored 13 points including three of five from deep. Jack McVeigh (12 points) reached double figures for the sixth straight game and with minutes being thrown around more than usual, Daniel Dillon managed 11 points.

The loss puts the 36ers out of playoffs contention, but they will be hoping to finish strong and reduce their in-game lapses to beat the Taipans on Sunday in their final game for the season.

The Wildcats face the Hawks on Friday for one of their two final-round fixtures and will look to remain in first place as they share the same amount of wins as Melbourne with a game up their sleeve.

A tale of two halves as Cotton’s 34 leads to remarkable 26-point comeback

THE Perth Wildcats have completed the biggest comeback win this season after overcoming a 26-point deficit to beat the Adelaide 36ers 97-88. An incredible second half display left fans stunned as the usual suspect in Bryce Cotton dropped 34 points to lead the way for his side. After being completely outplayed in the first-half, Trevor Gleeson rallied his players into providing that energy and aggression we have known Perth to ooze night in and night out.

It was the final game of the NBL Cup which Perth had already sewn up, but valuable season points were still up for grabs in what was the first meeting of the two sides this season, and the first game in which the highly anticipated Brandon Paul was suited up for.

After an evenly poised start, the Wildcats found themselves in early foul trouble and after gifting five shots from the charity stripe to Paul, the 36ers were on their way to a 12-0 run to close out the quarter.

Adelaide hit 10 free throws in the first quarter alone, and with Josh Giddey facilitating and players knocking down their shots, they would have secured a handy enough lead as it was. The 28-15 quarter time score line, however, was largely due to Perth shooting 5-20 including 2-11 from deep.

A big lift early was what they needed, and after a Cotton four-point play and a John Mooney three for his first field goal of the game, the lead was back to eight. The deep ball then became a weapon for the 36ers as Sunday Dech and Jack McVeigh found success multiple times from deep after Paul knocked one down earlier.

Things started to snowball for Perth from here as Daniel Johnson crashed the offensive glass, Paul caught a lob pass and stuffed, and then knocked down a couple of threes which made it the game-high 26-point margin. Paul had 16 first-half points in 11 minutes, Giddey notched up assist number 10, and the 36ers had 60 points in 20 minutes of play.

They had four players in double digits scoring, they shot 27 per cent better than Perth, had 28 bench points to five, and had a 21-point lead against an in-form Wildcats side. But that was where it stopped.

The energy from Perth at both ends was different from the start of the second half and they had five contributors at both ends. High activity and intent led them to a staggering 17-0 start to the third quarter as Adelaide was turning the ball over unlike the first half and shot 0-6 before a Giddey three stemmed the bleeding.

They finished the quarter outscored 8-25 on the back of 3-13 from the field and seven turnovers as Perth even won back the lead at one point with ease.

The final quarter was the Cotton show as he made his way to 34 points and completed the 30-point second-half turnaround. They still finished the game shooting at 38 per cent, but their 19-5 offensive rebounding advantage gave them 13 more shots. They tidied up their ball use in the second half (six turnovers to 10) and benefited from Adelaide’s misuse with 20 points from turnovers to four.

Perth also conceded just two more free throws after quarter time which came with a minute left in the game, managing to shoot 23-25 from the line themselves.

Cotton had assistance from Mooney (17 points, 15 rebounds) and Todd Blanchfield (20 points, five rebounds) but credited the squad’s mindset and attitude for their turnaround.

“We just played with a lot of heart,” he said. “We got some stuff off our chest in the locker room, coach gave us an earful as well, but we came out and we played Wildcats basketball.”

Adelaide enjoyed a good spread of scorers for particularly the first half but dropped off in the second. Paul put up big numbers on debut with 25 points on 50 per cent shooting, while Giddey had another double-double with 14 points and 13 assists to go with eight boards. Johnson (14 points, seven rebounds, and Dech (12 points) were serviceable, while McVeigh continued to provide that spark off the bench with 12 points.

The Wildcats return home to face the Taipans at RAC Arena on Friday night, while the 36ers stay in Melbourne to play the red-hot Phoenix on Saturday.

Franchise record efficiency earns Phoenix NBL Cup runners up honours

THE South East Melbourne Phoenix have won three in a row for the first time since the start of the season and have secured second place on the NBL Cup ladder after their 14-point victory over the New Zealand Breakers (103-89). Setting a franchise record of 63 per cent shooting from the field, they won all four quarters on the back of five players scoring double figures. An ominous sign for the competition with players like Keifer Sykes, Adam Gibson, Kendall Stephens, and Dane Pineau still to come back in.

Injuries have also affected the Breakers with Corey Webster, Rob Loe, and Lamar Patterson missing, while new signings in Jeremy Kendle and William McDowell-White are not yet available. Despite these absences on either side, both outfits have been playing some of their best basketball this season.

The first matchup between these sides in 13 months kicked off in an efficiently high-octane fashion with the Phoenix leading 29-23 at the first break.

The anticipated matchup of Finn Delany and Mitch Creek was ignited early with plays at both ends providing some quality basketball, but the work of Izayah Mauriohooho-Le’afa was what stood out in early proceedings. He drew two charges and dropped a pair of threes and has quickly become one of the biggest improvers during the NBL Cup.

The Phoenix did not take care of the ball as much as they would have liked, but 5-8 from deep which included a missed three-quarter court buzzer-beater was what gave them the edge. With each quarter giving South East Melbourne something to play for, they were reluctant to drop a point and managed to hold out the Breakers in the second to lead 53-46 at half time.

Delany was leading the charge for New Zealand as he made his way to 13 first-half points, but 13 from Ben Moore and 12 from Creek on perfect field shooting was pivotal to their edge in the game. Offensive efficiency was key in their lead, but they were still giving up the ball too much as coach Simon Mitchell pleaded with his troops to restrict their scoring from turnovers.

With the game still in the balance, the Breakers had to reverse their second-half history as they had only won one of their last nine.

Tai Webster was set on being the man to step up and knocked down two triples to start the third. On his next attacking foray, he committed an offensive foul and had to sit down with four fouls. From there, the Phoenix extended their lead with their attack on the paint. They would make shots inside or draw the foul or draw the defence and kick it to their shooters on the outside.

They led 78-65 at the final break but despite their lead, coach Mitchell was not happy and implored his team to think beyond just winning quarters but playing basketball that would take them deep into the season.

Mostly sloppy back and forth basketball in the final quarter did not see any significant change in the margin as South East Melbourne won the final quarter to give them the maximum seven points to put them outright second on the NBL Cup ladder. It was just the second time that a side won all four quarters and the game, with the other being New Zealand.

Creek had 21 points, four rebounds, and four assists, while Kyle Adnam had 21 points and seven assists and were the key contributors to go with Yannick Wetzell (15 points) and Cam Gliddon (10 points, four rebounds, four assists).

The Phoenix scored 48 points in the paint and tried to expose the undermanned Breakers line up inside. Thanks to 17 points from Moore, their bench outscored New Zealand’s by 19 points as they opted to go with a six-player rotation with just two other players playing six minutes or less.

Being notably undermanned themselves, Creek said his side did a fantastic job to finish second in the NBL Cup having had their “backs against the wall”.

“Guys out injured, guys stepping up, replacement players, Ryan [Broekhoff] coming in with 14 days of sitting on a couch essentially, so proud of the guys and what they’ve been able to achieve,” he said. “We’ve all gone through a lot of adversity to be here, it’s nice to get a bit of prize money that’s fantastic, the beers will taste good tonight, but we’ve got to get back into it”.

Delany (24 points, six rebounds, three assists, 40 minutes) and Tom Abercrombie (23 points) both shot at 60 per cent and kept the Breakers competitive, while Webster managed 16 points and five assists, but eight turnovers.

The Phoenix look ahead to the 36ers on Saturday having pushed their way into outright fourth, while the Breakers will face the Bullets on the same night.

Hawks return to best after rampant third quarter

CROSS-STATE NBL rivals Illawarra Hawks and Sydney Kings did battle in an entertaining first half, but a dominant third quarter from the Hawks gave them a healthy 89-69 win showing glimpses of their early season form. Sydney was kept to their lowest season score in what was the one hundredth meeting between these two sides after scoring just eight third quarter points.

This was exactly the response coach Brian Goorjian was after following their abysmal performance against the Wildcats on Sunday. The Kings, however, were coming off a good win and were buoyed with the return of their import big man Jarell Martin.

It was that man that the Kings were running their offence through early as they fed it to the blocks with great success. His opponent in Sam Froling was up to it at the other end though, as he was on his way to a big night.

The key for the Hawks was Justinian Jessup who has clearly struggled recently. He was called for an offensive foul early on but responded in a positive way as he facilitated the offence instead of forcing up shots.

Six missed free throws from the Hawks cost them a quarter-time lead with proceedings matched at 24. Tyler Harvey was 2-6 from the line despite being 37-40 for the season.

There was a clear contrast in styles early as an Illawarra outfit with high intensity and good ball movement saw them find looks inside for 16 of their 24 points, while the Kings took nine shots both inside and outside.

The second quarter flagged Illawarra’s second-half dominance as they looked to have found their mojo from earlier in the season with Jessup and Harvey hitting shots, Deng Adel getting out in transition and dunking, and role players doing what was required.

Despite this, the Kings were within one point at half-time thanks to Tom Vodanovich’s spark off the bench and Didi Louzada’s effort on both ends.

Things started to unravel for Sydney from there though, as they were outscored 25-8 in the third quarter. A nice Harvey three on a set play on the first possession of the half should have provided ominous signs for Sydney, but fluent ball movement and disciplined, high-effort defence was the key behind the reduction in points. Comparatively, the Kings were static and lacklustre offensively as they shot 2-13 from the field and conceded five turnovers.

The final quarter still had the NBL Cup point on the line as the Kings were looking to take something out of the game, but it was mostly junk time as Illawarra gave some deep rotation players some minutes.

The Hawks won the final quarter and won the game 89-69 as they solidify third spot on the ladder.

Froling led all-comers in points with 20 on 9-10 shooting to go with six rebounds. He said he had a couple of games where he “hadn’t felt [him]self”.

“Came out tonight, was being aggressive and we were moving the ball a lot more so I got a few more looks and it happened from there,” he said.

Harvey continued to lead from the front with 17 points, four rebounds, and four assists and said that tonight was about “getting back to ourselves”.

“We’re going through the grind right now you know, it’s not easy so you got to have that growth mindset every single day,” he said. “We lost that for a bit, but coach has a way of finding things, knowing what to say and how to say it so hopefully we carry it on to Melbourne”.

Jessup managed to regain some form and score 15 points on the night, while Adel (nine points, four rebounds, three assists) and Cameron Bairstow (eight points, six rebounds, three assists) played valuable minutes off the bench.

Dejan Vasiljevic was the only Kings player to reach double digits with 12 points, while Martin was looking strong for six points before minutes restrictions saw him remain on the bench for the second half.

Jordan Hunter scored his first field goal late in the game after scoring in double digits for three of their last four games, while Casper Ware shot 2-10 for six points.

Illawarra shot 52 per cent from the field compared to Sydney’s 37 and recorded 10 more assists, indicative of the efficiency from Illawarra and Sydney’s lack thereof. Both teams shot a combined 16-35 from the free throw line however, as the Hungry Jacks cheeseburger code would have had to have been supplied numerous times on the night for consecutive missed free throws.

Both teams will play off on Saturday’s double header with tough matchups as the Kings take on the Bullets, and the Hawks play Melbourne United.

Offensive showcase ends with Bullets sitting atop NBL Cup ladder

ONE of the highest-scoring NBL games this season saw the Brisbane Bullets edge the Adelaide 36ers 109-104 on the back of 30 points from MVP candidate Nathan Sobey. Adelaide played one of their better games through an inconsistent period for them and managed to get out to a double-digit lead twice. Brisbane’s form and class stood tall though as their offensive spread and second-half defensive effort got them over the line.

Adelaide’s first quarters have been troubling in recent matches, only winning one of their last six, but they came out to play as the entertaining offensive display started immediately for both teams. Bullets star Vic Law nailed a triple to open their scoring account, but the outright third most-capped 36er in Daniel Johnson replied with a three of his own as he started his efforts for a huge scoring night.

Sunday Dech was a key contributor on the night, but 12 first-quarter points were instrumental in Adelaide’s early lead and vital to their impressive shooting, with two of those points being a huge poster over the in-form Matt Hodgson.

The 36ers took a four-point lead into the first break, with Josh Giddey’s five dimes also putting him on triple-double watch.

With Brandon Paul’s entry to NBL21 imminent, the departing Jeremy Kendle made the most of what looks to be his last game as a 36er, sinking triples on either side of quarter-time and bringing great energy on the defensive end.

Coach Connor Henry decided to run the offence through Tony Crocker who did not disappoint with some magic in the post and a pull up mid-range jumper. Combined with Johnson’s dominance on the offensive boards, the 36ers made their way to a 10-point lead.

Back and forth action closed out the half but it was all thanks to one man: Sobey. Strong shooting and confidence managed to keep the Bullets within six points at the main break in what was the highest combined half-time score (118 points) this season. The defence was far from ordinary, but the offence was just fantastic.

Both teams were shooting brilliantly, but the key difference was the 12 more shots taken by Adelaide on the back of nine offensive rebounds to one.

After just eight first-half points on four attempts, Law started the second half with an early basket as he imposed himself on the game. He was not alone in this imposition though, as the Bullets raced to score 21 points in the first five minutes of the third quarter to retain the lead and force the game into the back-and-forth slog that would remain.

With the scores tied at the final break, Hodgson fouled out with 8:30 left in the game and looked to be a big blow at the time but Law and Sobey along with valuable contributions from Jason Cadee would help steady proceedings for Brisbane.

Law was fading out of the post and secured three the old-fashioned way, while Sobey and Cadee were dropping bombs from deep.

Johnson and Giddey stepped up for Adelaide as well, but it was Jack McVeigh who kept the 36ers in the game. His effort on both ends stood out, but his efficiency and hustle offensively set him apart.

With just three points in it, Sobey put in a big dive to save a loose ball, and then pulled up for three up the other end to all but ice the game.

It was another monster game for Sobey as he ended with 30 points (11-15), four rebounds, and four assists. Law was just as efficient with 22 points (10-13), four rebounds, and five assists. Cadee (16 points) and Orlando Johnson (13 points, four rebounds, four assists) chipped in with important minutes as the Bullets shot a remarkable 60 per cent from the floor. They also restricted Adelaide to 42 second-half points, 20 less than their first-half concession.

Johnson led the 36ers with 29 points and nine rebounds, as Giddey narrowly missed his triple-double with 19 points, seven rebounds, and 11 assists.

Dech finished with 20 points, while McVeigh had 18 points and eight rebounds to continue his string of four consecutive double figure scoring games.

The Bullets face the Kings on Saturday, as the 36ers take on Perth on Sunday.

Jessup’s struggles continue as clinical Wildcats bounce back

THE Perth Wildcats closed out Round 8 of the NBL with a commanding 87-70 win over the Illawarra Hawks. It was second place against third coming into the game, but it was a clinical display from the Wildcats which made it look like a non-contest from the start with an 11-point quarter time deficit the smallest margin of any of the breaks.

A tougher matchup was expected due to the quality of the output from both sides this season, but the element of mystery was also a factor as it was the first time this season we had seen this matchup. Their last meeting was in Round 15 of last season which saw a 22-point win for Perth.

Both sides looked different then compared to now as the Hawks looked to improve on their 38-88 record against Perth with big performances from Tyler Harvey and Justinian Jessup, but it was only the former who would be a shining light for a rather dull Hawks outfit. Former Hawk Todd Blanchfield was also taking on his old side for the first time after spending two seasons at Illawarra.

From the very start of the game, it was Perth that brought a greater intensity at both ends, with smooth and well-communicated team defence not allowing this explosive Illawarra team to go on a run.

For much of the game, the Hawks had a much more difficult time finding open looks but when they did, the Wildcats would reply instantly, if not with a few more stops and baskets to go with it.

The Wildcats finished the timeout-free first quarter with a 9-2 run to give them a 28-17 lead at the first break on the back of seven individual scorers compared to Illawarra’s four.

Perth also shot the ball better and moved the ball better for nine assists to two, as they edged out to a lead that would only extend for the remainder of the game.

With the game far from over at that stage, Hawks coach Brian Goorjian pleaded for more effort from his team, and after a strong start with Deng Adel hitting from deep, and Harvey stepping through for three the old-fashioned way, the lead was cut back to five.

After a strong start to the game, veteran Jesse Wagstaff asserted his authority with a post-hook and a triple to settle things. A made Blanchfield three and then a foul on another attempt took the lead back out to 13 as proceedings looked as though they were unravelling for the Hawks.

Despite Jessup’s first make of the game (1-6 at that point), some smooth moves inside from John Mooney helped Perth to a 53-31 lead at the main break.

Perth continued to shoot, move, and take care of the ball better, but 18 bench points and three players in double digits for scoring were instrumental in the big lead as Harvey’s 12 first-half points were a lone effort in an abysmal scoring performance for Illawarra. 18 per cent from deep highlighted such struggles.

Despite a relatively even start to the second half, the Wildcats managed to stretch the lead out to a game-high 30 points.

Young gun Luke Travers checked into the game for the first time after several starts and made an immediate impact with his activity at both ends of the court.

Jarrod Bairstow and Tom Jervis were the only two Wildcats players with minutes to not score after three quarters of play which saw the scoreline at 46-74. Jervis almost fouled out of the game in record time after some deliberation saw him remain at four personal fouls in just three minutes on the court.

With the NBL Cup adding value to every quarter, the Hawks still had something to play for and managed to win the final quarter 24-13. An up and down quarter forced Perth to lose the structure they had played with all game in what broadcaster Shane Heal described as a game of “pick-up”.

The final score read 70-87 as Illawarra was kept to its lowest score of the season. Wagstaff said that what got them the win was “100 per cent defence”.

“They’ve got an extremely talented team, they shoot the ball exceptionally well, and I thought our guards did an exceptional job,” he said.

Wagstaff was pivotal off the bench with 14 points as stars Bryce Cotton (18 points) and Mooney (14 points, 10 rebounds, five assists) continued to put up their typically good numbers. Blanchfield also enjoyed a solid outing against his former team with 16 points.

Harvey’s 17 points left him as the sole player to reach double digits in scoring for his side with Justin Simon’s and Isaac White’s nine points each the next best. Jessup finished with just five points as his challenge now is to find other ways to score and contribute now that teams have adjusted to his strengths and put extra focus onto him.

The Hawks will look to rebound in their next outing against Sydney, while Perth will want to carry this momentum and level of play into their matchup with the Breakers on Friday.

Ruthless Sobey leads Bullets to dominant victory

THE Brisbane Bullets closed out round seven with a commanding 115-95 win over their Queensland rivals in the Cairns Taipans. Although both teams sit at the bottom of the NBL Cup ladder, fans were hoping they could recreate their overtime thriller from earlier in the season which narrowly saw Brisbane prevail. While Vic Law and Nathan Sobey carried their side to victory in that performance, Law would see just 14 minutes of action in this matchup after being ejected from the game after receiving a second technical foul.

An even opening quarter was kicked off with a Kouat Noi layup, before Sobey would start the game the way he would maintain throughout with an aggressive triple as he made his way to 30 points on the night. Fabijan Krslovic was given the defensive role on the dangerous Law and although he kept him accountable up the other end, he could not stop Law from scoring and found himself in early foul trouble.

With the Taipans showing heavy reliance on their starters in all statistical areas this season, coach Mike Kelly needed someone to step up off the bench. Krslovic’s early substitution, Nate Jawai showed that he is still capable of playing a key role in the league dropping seven first-quarter points and providing plenty of energy on the defensive end.

Despite Sobey and a deep three to beat the shot clock, it was an even contest with the biggest margin being five. A Jarrod Kenny three late in the quarter gave the Taipans a 28-25 lead and the NBL Cup point.

The Taipans were shooting well from deep (4 from 5) and had one turnover to Brisbane’s five, but a three from Anthony Drmic and an old-fashioned three from Sobey would give the Bullets the lead and the perfect platform to build from.

Brisbane would go on to pile on 35 points in the second quarter as they managed stops defensively to go with efficient shooting despite Law’s absence through foul trouble. Cam Oliver getting into the game would help the Taipans get to within five points, before back-to-back triples from Harry Froling would push the lead back to 11.

Scott Machado free throws made it a 60-51 ball game at half-time, but just two made shots from Oliver was less than desired, as were the 60 conceded points.

Oliver would start the second half on a much more positive note with an and-one with the first possession, but some quick replies from Tyrell Harrison ensured the lead would not be hindered. This was until Oliver pushed back his range and after a couple of threes and some stops, the margin was cut back to nine points.

Despite the big quarter from Oliver, Law’s return saw the lead maintained for the Bullets as they held an 86-73 lead heading into the final break.

A Jason Cadee three was not the start the Taipans needed, but when Law was ejected and Machado baskets brought the margin back to 10, the Taipans still had a chance.

Eight points from Drmic included his fifth made three from as many attempts kept the Taipans at bay as the margin hovered around the 20-point mark for the rest of the quarter.

Sobey’s 30 points led the Bullets while Law still managed 14 points, but it was Drmic (20 points, seven rebounds) and Froling (15 points, 11 rebounds) off the bench who put in big games to help their side win as comfortably as they did.

The Bullets concede the most assists per game this season but won this contest 24 to 14. Six of those for the Taipans came from Machado to go along with 26 points. Despite a slow start, Oliver managed 21 points and six rebounds on 72 per cent shooting, while Noi was their only other player to reach double figures with 11 points.

Bench points continue to be an area in which the Taipans lack as they had just 26 despite four players playing 12 minutes or more.

The Bullets will play the Breakers on Wednesday, while the Taipans will face the Kings on Thursday.

No Sykes, no problem as Phoenix hold firm around top of the table

A SUNDAY double-header to end round seven action kicked off with the South East Melbourne Phoenix meeting and beating the Illawarra Hawks for the second time this season, 93-76. Two of the three teams in the league that average more than 90 points per game were both coming off tough losses and were looking to bounce back to solidify their place around the top of the table.

With stringent and physical defence from the Phoenix handing the Hawks their first season loss in their first matchup, the key difference this time was the absence of star import Keifer Sykes who is carrying an ankle injury. He joined the already sidelined Adam Gibson and Dane Pineau, as well as the recently signed Ryan Broekhoff who is still in quarantine. Kyle Adnam stepped up in his absence as the Phoenix again restricted the Hawks to their lowest score the season and served them their biggest loss.

The Phoenix picked up where they left off from their last matchup and were intense on both ends of the floor from the outset. Adnam and Cam Gliddon led the charge early with tidy distribution and shot making being key areas that gave the Phoenix an early lead which they did not squander.

While their intensity was clearly superior early, South East Melbourne was also able to take the Hawks off the dribble and either straight to the rim to score or find passes inside to big men like Yannick Wetzell and Ben Moore.

With Sykes’ injury forcing the Phoenix to make rotation changes, star of the New Zealand National Basketball League Izayah Mauriohooho-Le’afa was given extra minutes having played just four minutes this season. He made an immediate impact with his known defensive abilities, forcing an eight-second backcourt violation in his first possession on the court.

The offensive stalwarts for the Hawks in Justinian Jessup and Tyler Harvey struggled for much of the game, with air balls for each of them highlighting their struggles. The pair also struggled in their last matchup, as coach Simon Mitchell made a point of reminding his players to always know where they are and force them right.

The quarter-time score read 25-13 for the Phoenix as they shot the ball 19 per cent better and had six more assists, areas they would continue to dominate for the rest of the game.

Brian Goorjian pleaded for more physicality from his outfit, and despite a couple of easy baskets and poorly missed shots, an and-one from Andrew Ogilvy, and triples from Deng Deng, Deng Adel, and Harvey combined with some intensity on the defensive end saw them back within six points.

Losing the offensive fluidity they enjoyed to this point, the Phoenix sought to get to the free throw line to halt the Hawks’ momentum and did so to great effect. They had 17 attempts to Illawarra’s five.

The Hawks, however, continued to shoot well from deep and if it were not for some Mitch Creek magic down the stretch, the Hawks would not have been trailing 45-37 at the main break.

Although the margin was only eight points, South East Melbourne still felt in control and they proved it with a big 28-18 third quarter to give them an 18-point lead heading into the final quarter. An up and down start to the term would eventually be dominated through the Phoenix’s sharp ball movement, and offensive glass prowess headed by Moore.

The margin was extended to 20 points after an Adnam floater was followed by his tenth assist on the night.

The final quarter comeback would have needed to have been the biggest of the season, but it was not to be as the rest of the game ebbed and flowed. Two Cameron Bairstow triples gave the Hawks life, but the Phoenix pushed through and kept the Hawks to their lowest score of the season again winning 93-76.

The Phoenix enjoyed another huge NBL Cup outing from Creek who had 25 points, six rebounds, and four assists on 58 per cent shooting. Gliddon put up 19 points, to go with five rebounds and three assists, while Adnam fell just short of a double-double with nine points, 11 assists, and four steals. Moore also enjoyed one of his best games this season with 22 points and five rebounds off the bench, which included 12 of 12 from the free throw line.

South East Melbourne has 23 more free throw attempts in the game and managed to force Illawarra into 16 turnovers. This disciplined defenced managed to hold the Hawks’ key players in Jessup (seven points) and Harvey (14 points) quieter than usual. Justin Simon (13 points, six rebounds) was the only other Illawarra player to score more than 10 points.

The Phoenix will look to carry this momentum into their Wednesday matchup with Perth, while the Hawks will look to bounce back on Thursday against the 36ers.

United continue their winning ways despite Bullets best shot

ROUND four action kicked off at the Armoury as an enthralling game saw Melbourne United eventually prevail against a relentless Brisbane Bullets outfit 109-96. With both teams looking to continue their winning streaks, it was an arm-wrestle from the very beginning as Shea Ili rolled his ankle in early proceedings and forced United coach Dean Vickerman to stray from their winning formula.

Star import Vic Law and Brisbane captain Nathan Sobey were vital to their side’s two Round 3 wins, both averaging 28 points per game, and both had to bring that same play to give their side a chance at handing United their first loss for the season.

The opening term immediately provided back and forth action with sharp-shooters Chris Goulding and Jason Cadee trading threes in early stages. After shooting 0/8 in their last matchup, out-of-form recruit Scotty Hopson started the exact opposite of the way he would have liked with two turnovers. Unlike Sunday’s game, however, he maintained a positive body language and let the game come to him as he played a role at both ends of the court.

Melbourne’s defence inside with Jack White and Jock Landale has been a feature through their games thus far, but Tyrell Harrison and the Bullets sought to attack it and make Landale accountable on the defensive rotations.

A strong finish to the quarter saw them hold a 31-26 lead over Melbourne as both teams enjoyed an even spread of scorers. Sobey had three assists from pick and roll actions, drawing the inside defender and lobbing over the top.

Vickerman was unhappy with the United defence early in the second, but it was up the other end where Jo Lual-Acuil was firing, boasting 11 points with much of the first half to play. This play enabled Melbourne to stay within arms-length of Brisbane, as a tighter finish saw the Bullets lead at one point heading into the main break.

A 52-51 score line meant it was the highest combined points total in a first half for NBL21, indicative of the offensive firepower on display. Both teams were shooting better than 50 per cent but it was Melbourne’s 24 bench points and efficiency from deep which was keeping them in the game. Sobey said that if they tightened up on some of those walk-in threes, they would be in a lot better stead.

The third quarter saw United come out firing as Hopson started to gain some confidence and make some shots. A pair of offensive rebounds and a basket capped of a 12-2 United run as Bullets coach Andrej Lemanis called a timeout.

After the lights went out in the Nissan Arena momentarily, Brisbane managed an 11-3 run of their own to end the quarter at a one-point deficit again. Sobey led the fightback as he showed why many thought he was perhaps unlucky to miss out on Olympic Boomers squad selection.

As if the offensive display was not enough through three quarters of play, a three-point contest was sparked to begin the fourth quarter with none other than Goulding kicking it off with a pair of deep makes. Law, Landale, and Orlando Johnson also got in on the action. A 7-0 Brisbane run threatened, before nine consecutive Melbourne points all but iced the game.

Despite a valiant Sobey’s best efforts, another pair of Goulding splashes held the Bullets foray as they came out 13-point victors. Goulding led the United scoring with 27 points including seven threes (7-11), and said they were lucky to give up 52 first-half points and only be one-point down.

“We [knew we] could be so much better, so we wanted to step on it in the third quarter, had to figure their defence out a little bit and be aggressive, that’s why we’re the best,” Goulding said.

With him a big part of their 50 per cent shooting night from deep, the efforts of Landale cannot be discounted as he went 4-8 from three showing no hesitancy to release the deep ball. He also had 20 points, 12 rebounds, and five assists on the night, showing why he is one of the best big men Australia has. Hopson (16 points, four assists) showed glimpses of his best game, while White and Mitch McCarron each had 10 points.

Sobey (27 points, three assists, six rebounds) and Law (20 points, four assists, seven rebounds) again took most of the workload as Lemanis will be looking for more output from senior players Cadee (five points, 2-7, 32 minutes) and Anthony Drmic (four points, 1-6, 23 minutes).

Melbourne United play Perth Wildcats on Sunday February 7, while the Bullets will enjoy a break before they return to play next Saturday February 13 against the Adelaide 36ers.

Picture credit: AAP

Phoenix triumph in thriller rematch to secure maiden franchise victory

THE South East Melbourne Phoenix infiltrated the ‘Jungle’ and secured their first franchise win against the Perth Wildcats winning a one-point thriller, 90-89. It was the second consecutive matchup for both teams as the Phoenix squared the ledger up after some ill-discipline on the glass and with possession cost them on Sunday. Given Adam Gibson was a late out with a calf injury, the endurance of South East Melbourne was going to be tested, despite coach Simon Mitchell asserting before the game that fatigue was not a factor in the recent loss.

Early proceedings saw an efficient start for both sides, with the free-flowing nature and scoring trends setting the tone for much of the game. Neither side was able to create a significant lead until the Phoenix caught fire late in the first with a 7-0 run to close out the quarter. 20 of their 23 first-quarter points came in the paint which was just six less of their total from Sunday, a clear change in approach against a Perth side missing the inside presence of Nick Kay.

Wildcats coach Trevor Gleeson was displeased with the easy looks they gave up inside and pleaded for a lift. When the Phoenix opened the second quarter up with first two baskets and pushed the lead to double digits, it threatened to blow out. Perth then did as they managed to do all game and hung in there, going on a 7-0 run of their own to keep within striking distance.

The Phoenix lead maintained as they traded baskets, but a six-point flurry capped with an and-one opportunity from development player, and starter, Luke Travers saw the scores at 42-41 at the main break. While both teams shot poorly from deep, the Phoenix could not keep Perth off the glass (10 offensive rebounds). They did however reverse their discipline with ball in hand and force the Wildcats into eight first half turnovers.

Bryce Cotton and Keifer Sykes continued their dual which was much more even this time around as they each had 11 first-half points, while Yannick Wetzell (10 points, five rebounds) was important for South East Melbourne.

The second half maintained the ebbs and flows of the first half with Boomer Mitch Creek exploding out of the break to score the first seven points including slashing finishes with both hands and a three before Gleeson decided he had seen enough. As much as the momentum was stacked against the Wildcats, they showed why they are the reigning champions and came back with a nine-point run of their own.

While Perth managed to tie the game up during the third, South East Melbourne held a marginal 71-67 lead heading into the last break. As see-sawing and exciting as the game had been until then, the theatre was only just beginning as the fourth quarter rolled around.

Mitchell was called for a technical foul early in the term as Perth took the lead for the first time since the early stages of the game. With Sykes on the bench with foul trouble and a rolled ankle forcing Creek to re-strap himself, the Phoenix were without their two stars with five minutes left. Ben Moore stepped up with some big plays at both ends and a big Wetzell slam was important.

Sykes checked back into the game and stripped Cotton in the one-on-one situation and finished with the layup. Cotton responded with a huge four-point play, before Kyle Adnam drained a three to keep them within one. A Sykes floater from the block gave them the lead with 4.8 seconds left, and it was up to the Wildcats. 349-gamer Jesse Wagstaff had a golden opportunity to win the game receiving a pass and with adequate social distancing from the Phoenix defence, the equal fourth-highest capped Wildcats player missed from under the basket.

The win puts the Phoenix at 2-2 with Creek (24 points, seven rebounds, three steals) and Sykes (19 points, eight assists, three steals) their top performers. After losing the battle with Cotton on Sunday, Sykes said he is “just as good as all the players in the league”.

“Offensively I still need to get it going, get my timing right, but I’m definitely working on finding my guys and getting these guys scoring because I know for me it’ll come along,” he said.

The two-time MVP in Cotton stood out for Perth with 32 points and six assists, while John Mooney had 19 points and 13 rebounds.

Both teams play next on January 31 with the Phoenix taking on cross-two rivals Melbourne United, and Perth taking the New Zealand Breakers.

Picture credit: via SBS