Author: Troy Hanning

NBL Classic Contest: Come from behind championship

DRAFT Central casts an eye back to one of the most thrilling Grand Final series way back in 2004 where the Sydney Kings and West Sydney Razorbacks went head to head. The series went down to the wire with the premiers decided in an epic Game 5 showing that pegged more than just team against team, but New South Welshman against each other.

The Razorbacks clearly comprehended this importance as they came out locked in and raring to go. Every Razorback player on the floor had the same stern look on their face, knowing that a grand final is a once in a lifetime experience. Their concentration levels were high, not goofing around in the layup line, not high-fiving after just another basket, not paying attention to the crowd’s antics, just burrowing in to get the job done. These all factored into them going on a 9-2 run to start the game. 

This was not from some incredible hot shooting performance, this was just playing basketball the right way which is to play hard on both ends. But a team like the Kings were not going down that easy as they slowly found their footing towards the end of the first quarter albeit down by 11 points. 

After some much needed adjustments, the Kings narrowed in and played the second quarter like they had they played all year. As a team who deserves to play in a Grand Final. This concentration was evident until the last few minutes of the half as the Kings’ lapsed and the Razorbacks pouced. After cutting the lead to just a basket, the Razorbacks went on an impressive 7-0 run to end the half. But with one play left, Kings’ Luke Martin drained a three pointer, allowing his team to go back into the locker room with their heads up high, yet down 12 points. 

Martin was the type of player to not get many minutes and even fewer shots. But that is the thing about Grand Finals, the winning team almost always has that random player to turn the fate of the game upside down. The Kings looked like a different team in the third quarter, coming out with a real spring in their step. The biggest difference was their dedication to defence and while all members of that Kings’ team deserved credit, it was clear to any fan that MVP Matthew Nielsen was their anchor on that end. 

It was unlikely the Razorbacks ever had this much trouble scoring the basket, as they were only able to put up a historically notorious 13 points in the third quarter. That is coming from a team who scored 49 in the half. But by Kings standards, their scoring was not up to par either, as they entered the final quarter of that season down six just points. 

This was the perfect situation to see which team deserved to be champions. Either the Razorbacks were unfit to hold onto a lead after doubling the Kings in the first quarter. Or the Kings did not have the heart to continue the storied comeback they had been on in the last two quarters. 

To begin, both teams looked almost identical in their production and talent. But as the game went further and further down the stretch, it was the Kings who stood up, making the shots when it mattered. This momentum only steam rolled until they finally took back that holy lead they had been chasing for for so long. Once that hurdle was over, some Razorback players began to panic. 

Deeper and deeper the Razorbacks dug themselves a hole until it looked like only Aaron Trahair was the only player willing to shoot. But it was too little too late. The Kings had just won their second championship, beating the Razorbacks 90-79.

But Trahair’s name should not be forgotten as he dropped in a team high 20 points in a losing effort. Ebi Ere for the Kings was phenomenal dropping in 25 points along with six rebounds. Brett Wheeler may have been the best on that floor with 18 points and 11 rebounds. But no one could disregard Nielsen who finished the game with 14 points and a game high 12 rebounds. 

NBL Classic Contest: Perth Wildcats proceed to 1997 finals despite Derek Rucker’s best efforts

WITH the National Basketball Association (NBA) recently capping off their post-season and the National Basketball League (NBL) feeling like their last game was over a lifetime ago, it is a good time for basketball fans to appreciate what teams can do come finals. But how about what it takes to even get there in the first place?

In 1997 the Townsville Suns were fighting for just that – a chance to play competitive, highly watched basketball in pursuit of a championship. A loss would mean their season was over, because with just one game left in the regular season, the Suns had to bring it. But surpassing the 17-13 Perth Wildcats was no easy challenge. Led by two time NBL Grand Final MVP Ricky Grace, the Wildcats had beaten the Suns in nine of their last ten meetings. But their last encounter was the lone Suns win of the lot, potentially throwing a wrench in whatever momentum Perth originally held. 

This meant the outcome of this game coming in was almost impossible to predict – the only thing fans knew was that Townsville were desperate. This was made evident in the very first play as Chris Sneed dove from half court to grab the ball after a fumble on a tipped rebound. But sometimes hustle and heart cannot overcome everything as Perth clearly had the height advance down low. This was no small detail; in fact it was probably the most important element of the game as the Suns were slaughtered on the glass, finishing the quarter with a six rebound deficit, down 24-17. However, this was an expected challenge coming in as the two teams ranked first and last in the league, respectively.  

The Suns needed to change some things around, so that is what they did. Firstly, their off-ball defenders adjusted by going under screens, in contrast to their first quarter approach of going over. This was to give them a sharper angle to the basket in case a shot was thrown up. However this clearly took its toll on their ability to play perimeter defence. Secondly, once the shot was thrown up, all five Townsville players either boxed out or attacked the glass, leading to not one single transition basket in the second or third quarter. With all of these necessary adjustments, along with a never say die attitude from Suns’ star Derek Rucker, the Suns were only able to score two more points than the Wildcats in the second, and tie up the third. 

But despite the commendable efforts of Rucker, who was visibly sparking his team with more and more energy with every play, his form was soon to run out. This was because Rucker, who was only six-foot tall, had not spent a single minute on the bench since tip off, while acting as the leading rebound general throughout the match.

Again, all of these pro-rebounding improvements only worked to stop the bleeding, but did little-to-nothing to give the Suns any form of edge. So heading into their fourth quarter, with the Wildcats shooting at an unsurprising 45 per cent from three and leading by eight in the rebound column, the Suns would have to play their greatest quarter to shrink the five-point lead. 

In front of a Townsville-led crowd, the Suns put on that type of quarter for them coming out of the gates hot with a contest three from Rucker, the Suns killed the lead early. But creating their own is always the harder hurdle. Neither team was giving in, until there were just two minutes left, with Perth holding a three-point lead. 

So far up to that point, the Suns were playing exceptional, making all the right passes and taking all the right shots while giving full effort on both rebounding and defence. This was all on the back of Rucker. But this would be their downfall as once Rucker became seriously gassed, his individual game diminished. His shot fell way short and he was beat on the board by fresher legs on Perth, especially James Crawford, a Wildcats player off the bench, who was dropping buckets in the last. 

As Rucker regressed, the team inevitably followed until they lost by just a basket, 102-100. Rucker, who played an exceptional game, could not play exceptionally in every minute, but still finished with a jaw-dropping 36 points, seven rebounds and nine assists. That was one for the record books. His best supporting player had to be Sneed, who dropped in 16 points along with ten rebounds. 

For the victorious Wildcats, they would go all the way to the Semi Finals before losing, but would have the surprising Crawford to thank for this win, who sketched in 25 points. 

NBL Classic Contest: An upset in the first Sydney derby

IN 1998, the National Basketball League (NBL) were ecstatic about what would be their first Sydney derby in 11 years. The two cross-town rivals, the Razorbacks and the Sydney Kings, battling for integral respect. However the Kings were already the highly favoured competitors coming into the match while the new expansion team, especially after learning of the absence of their supposed best player, Derek Rucker to injury, they were now considered a wipe-off. But things did not go as expected that night.

The Sydney Razorbacks came out looking exactly like what they were, a team that had never played a minute in the NBL until now. But after a few awkward offensive possessions and one downright ugly endeavour on transition defense, John Rillie was able to sink a nice elbow jumper, the first points in franchise history. Looking back, this was meant to be, since Rillie went on to win more club MVPs than anyone in Razorbacks history. 

It might have been the only silver lining in what was a amateur quarter for the Razorbacks, getting out scored 14-27. However this would not be the story for the remainder of that game. The Razorbacks came out of the second looking determined. Fast and meticulous passes, actually running through the paint, not around it and most impactful, they stood up on defence. In the first, the Kings were making their way to any spot under the perimeter that they wanted. That was mostly stopped in the second, which threw a wrench into the Kings’ offensive schemes, affecting their rhythm and flow in all other areas of their game. 

With this swing in momentum, the Razorbacks were able to cut the deficit to just five points at half-time. But they were not done there. While the Kings came out much more alert in third, they still looked like they were on the back of their heels, struggling to consistently get stops on defence while failing to find a groove on offence. This was the one shortcoming both teams shared. Neither team were able to run plays successfully and instead had to keep resorting to three point shots or isolated scoring. 

This was a classic gift and curse situation for new teams like the Razorbacks. Whilst they were a new unit with limited experience, the benefit was no team really knew how to defend them. The Razorbacks were only able to outscore the Kings by just a point – 21 to the Kings’ 20 making it a 70-66 game – the Kings held the fragile lead coming into the fourth quarter. 

Clearly the Kings miscalculated that they would play in a neck and neck fourth quarter. Both teams motivated by not wanting to be the dunce of their hometown, the intensity lifted. Leigh Carlson, Rucker’s replacement at the point guard spot, was excellent in controlling the pace of the game and helping find his teammates open shots.

A real memorable debut, he was instrumental in the Razorbacks getting the lead with six minutes left of exhibition. Once that happened, the Kings were struggling to find the match winner to lead them to victory. Instead it seemed that every starter was almost taking turns to score the ball. While this was incredibly selfless, it is not exactly what the Kings needed coming into the crunch time minutes.

Ironically enough, it was the new team on the block that was perseverant and calm down the stretch, taking only good shots, mostly coming from pick and roll action. It was clear this was their best weapon since every time they tried to run plays, it ended up in flames. But once they had their lead, they just never looked back until it was just too late for the Kings to succumb.

The Razorbacks ended up shocking the league with their upset 103-97 win over the heavily favoured Kings. It did not matter where the franchise ended up or how they went that season, for that night alone, they were the best team in Sydney. 

It would not have been possible without 23 points from Rillie, or the 22 points along with 11 rebounds from Ernest Nzigamasabo. Even Simon Dwight came out big, hitting 18 points along with 14 rebounds. 

NBL Classic Contest: Syndey Kings begin three-peat

GRAND Finals are the most reliable tool to define a basketball season. We know this because as fans, we remember the seasons by who took home the championship gold. But with the National Basketball League (NBL) remaining inactive, while other international league’s endings are soon approaching, it might be awhile before fans can watch a sudden death match where the winner will forever etch their names into the record books. 

But lucky for Draft Central– fans, our Classic Contest series will be going back to look at the 2003 Grand Final Game 2 between the Perth Wildcats and the Sydney Kings. A game where spoiler alert, the Sydney Kings won, leading them on what would be, a historic three year run with consecutive titles. But before any of that, Sydney had to get past a veteran Wildcats team, who had won the title only three years earlier and had only lost the previous finals game by just four points. 

But they were a team who struggled to come into the game – in front of their home crowd – focused. Sometimes when one facet of a game plan is failing, a coach may suggest to double down on what is working. However in this case, the Wildcats looked lost all over. Ugly shots due to nerves and poor shot selection mixed with poor defence mainly from over extending on help allowed the Kings plenty of space to capitalise and go on a 15-2 to start the game. 

The Wildcats were able to catch their breath but the damage had already been done, as the Kings left the first quarter with their head high holding a 11 point lead. It was up to Ricky Grace, the vocal leader of the Wildcats, to stabilise his troops. Grace masterfully drew defences in just to kick it to the open man. The plan was good but the execution, questionable. Grace was getting his teammates the open looks, but clearly that rough first quarter was doing numbers on their shooter’s confidence as the misses kept coming while the Kings were consistently racking up the score sheet. 

Multiple Wildcats had their go guarding the hot hands of Chris Williams but none prevailed as they finished the half with a whopping 17 points. It comes to no surprise that a player of Williams’ calibre led the league in scoring that season for a great team. This is not the normal Classic Contest of two equal teams battling like crazy until one can lift their head at the last possible second. No, this is a tale of how an NBL dynasty established their reign. A story of how a top seeded team starred and subsequently forced the the league to change the Grand Finals format to a best of five game series the following year. 

With a 64-36 lead at half time, the home crowd were growing ever more frustrated with their team’s performance. After every bucket from the Wildcats, Sydney were able to drop in two more, and keep their foot on the throat of their opponents.

But these prayers were never answered as the Kings continued to look like champions, hardly forcing silly fouls, no clumsy turnovers, very little bad shots and most importantly, they never lost their lead. The Wildcats tried everything. They were unable to find any momentum in the paint, their post game looked inferior and their long range shot had not come out today. Their best weapon was to set multiple screens until someone found a mid range they liked. This is how Rob Feaster was getting his work in, while keeping his team relatively in it. 

But the Kings looked composed all game and entered the fourth quarter leading by 19. For a Grand Final, this might not have been the most climatic or jaw dropping, but it does speak to the type of team the Kings were in the early decade. A dominant team with a deep roster and little to no flaws. The Kings would go on to win this game as well as the next two Grand Finals, with Williams’ 24 extravaganza or Shane Heal’s 23 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds key factors. Even Matthew Nielsen stood out on the score sheet with a nice 21 points. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, Grace, who had led the league in assists that year, was not able to turn things around despite having 24 points along with six assists. However no one came close to the game of Feaster on that side, who was able to still drop in 40 points and 15 rebounds in what would be his final game of the season. 

NBL Classic Contest: Game winner in Elimination Finals

NOTHING would be better than to see some National Basketball League (NBL) action and while Draft Central cannot magically start a new season, we can take fans back to some of the greatest games that the NBL has to offer. In today’s Classic Contest, we look back at one of those games. A contest that left the crowd leaving sore from standing and screaming in excitement. A match where the team that loses, had to pack its bags and call it a season and a battle that was only decided with the very last shot in the very last period. This was the 2006 Elimination Final between the Adelaide 36ers and the Cairns Taipans.  

Both teams came out firing on all cylinders right from the get-go. The 36ers were dominant in forcing their way through the paint for close to the rim shots, but the Taipans came out that much more hotter, letting it fly from deep until they established an early 21-12 lead. But relying on the long range shots always has a streaky and random element to it, nowhere near as consistent as finding close range buckets. And just like that, Adelaide went on a jaw-dropping run to end the quarter leading 30-26, with most of their points coming from inside the perimeter. 

The following quarter was the definition of back and forth. Adelaide were unable to extend their lead to double digits while Cairns could never cross that line. So both teams cancelled each other out scoring 25 a piece. This is exactly what you want coming into an elimination game, a perfect quarter to build anticipation and angst for both fan bases. But this fear of elimination would only continue to accumulate when Anthony Stewart of the Taipans made his first three pointer, giving the Taipans a one point lead with just under three minutes left in the third.

The Taipans proceeded to go on a 8-0 run, but almost just as quick, allowed Adelaide to slither their way back ending the fourth 71-70, with Taipans holding a rare lead. They were now heading into what would be the last quarter of one team’s season, while the other would go on and face last year’s champions, the Sydney Kings. So far Adelaide had only lost two games all season at home, however the Taipans had won their last four matches, making it unclear to every fan in attendance who would come out on top. 

Brett Maher of the 36ers was excellent in this period in finding holes in the Taipans defence and making the correct pass, bringing his team to a one point lead with 94 seconds left on the clock. It is no wonder the 2006 ALL NBL point guard was the captain of this unit. But Cairns would not give up so easily, finding an open three and another, but it looked like their luck was running out. The Taipans kept missing their three-pointers, but fortunately kept securing offensive rebounds. But with 33 seconds to go, Taipans’ luck turned as Darnell Mee was able to find the bottom of the net with an elbow jumper. Adelaide had possession but threw up an ugly air ball; Cairns ball as Mee was intentionally fouled. The atmosphere plummeted in Adelaide’s home court as the reigning defensive player of the year went to the free throw line, already up one point. But Mee missed the first free throw, then hit the next one. 

Maher caught the ball from inbounds, hail-married it to Oscar Forman who was able to lay it in, all within three seconds. This heart-stopping game was going to overtime. The 36ers now had the momentum, the crowd and the experience of winning their last four over time periods. The tables had turned within a blink of an eye. 

As to be expected, the extended time was just like the rest of the game, with no team finding an edge until they found themselves with 45 seconds to go, Taipans holding a one point lead and possession. Mee shot from his favourite elbow but it rolled right in and out. 

Wille Farley tried to cross a defender but was ‘fouled’. In retrospect, the defender got all ball on the swipe but Farley was now at the free throw line and the referee was not going to change their decision. You can imagine the hurt the Taipans felt, potentially losing the game on a bad call. But after hitting the first, the next attempt hit the rim and went right to the Taipans who now had one shot to win this game, tied at 103 with 28 seconds remaining. They found a contested three but the exhaustion had taken its toll, and it clunked off the backboard and was tapped by none other than Farley, as it went right out of bounds.

Three seconds remaining now. Taipans ball. Inbounding to win the game. The tension in the air was thick. They found a cutting Anthony Stewert at the corner three, he takes a good looking shot that goes in. Buzzer sounds and the Taipans win 106-103 in an all out slug fest. 

The Cairns Taipans went to the semi-finals for the first time in NBL history. They would lose in the next round, but they would not have gotten there without the help of Gary Boodnikoff’s 20 points and seven rebounds. Or without the great Aaron Grabau’s 20 and seven performance, while shooting four three pointers. Even Martin Cattalini grabbed seven rebounds while dropping 14 points. A real team effort on all levels.

NBL Classic Contest: Greatest finish in Semi-Finals history

AWAITING the return of the National Basketball League (NBL), Draft Central takes you on a journey of some of the biggest and most memorable basketball games throughout history. Today we take a look at what could go down as one of the closest and greatest semi-finals game between Wollongong Hawks and Adelaide 36ers. 

All the things leading up to this historic night felt just right. Two highly contested league rivals, check. In 2001, the Wollongong Hawks had swept the regular season series, but both games were decided by just three points. The Hawks came out on top again in Game 1, by just one point, while Adelaide got their first win against the team in good fashion, winning by 11. Both teams felt like they had something big to prove. While Adelaide had made it all the way again to the semi-finals last season, this was the Hawks first postseason entrance in years. But most importantly, no fan on either side could predict with confidence what on earth would transpire in this final game.

It was no secret the 36ers were nervous and after a few clumsy turnovers and shots Darnell Mee, the ALL-NBL power forward of that season, was able to silence the crowd – and a trumpet – with an and-one. That shot may have even stifled some of his teammates’ nerves, because from that point on, they came out of the gates strong. By attacking the rim voraciously and getting the open looks from three, they quickly looked like a team meant to play in a semi-final. But the Hawks were no easy competitor, and being young and quick, they looked to score on every transition opportunity, usually finding their rhythm with the elbow jumpers. This run and gun style gave them a minuscule lead of just one point to end the first. 

But while both teams needed to make adjustments, it was the Hawks, led by Coach of the Year Brendan Joyce, that looked the most calibrated. From not attempting a single free throw all game, the Hawks led by natural slashes, Melvin Thomas and Matt Garrison, made attacking the rim a top priority. But it was Mark Nash for the 36ers that was most valuable in the first half. He might not have had the most shots but he did have the most points. Play after play, he kept making the right pass, the right read and most importantly, the right shot. It was through his variety of scoring and basketball IQ that the 36ers were able to stand side by side with the Hawks, ending the half on a stalemate, 55 points apiece. 

The 36ers’ finals experience started to come into play. As the pressure built and fatigue took its toll, Adelaide remained poised and under control. On paper, one could argue they may not have had the better team, but come finals time, veterans take over and the 36ers had a lot more than their opponents. You can out-rebound a team, out-assist a team, have less turnovers, but if you cannot make shots, then you will struggle to win a series. Although Wollongong played better, especially in the third quarter, it was becoming increasingly clear the moment was getting a little too big for them. 

Wollongong entered the final quarter shooting 44 per cent, and their opponents? 54 per cent. That is the impact of veteran leadership. But to be fair, no one could question this Hawks team’s heart, which in large part thanks to rookie of the year, Axel Dench, cut their deficit completely within just two minutes of the fourth quarter beginning.

The rest of the quarter remained in the back and forth nature that characterised what had made this game so great from the beginning. Until there were only 90 second left, the 36ers held a two point lead with the chance to extend it. With only one second left on the shot clock, Hawks’ Charles Thompson was ruled with a blocking foul, seeing the 36ers now able to head to the line on any foul called on their rivals. After missing the first, the 36ers redeemed themselves with the next one, making it now a three point lead. The Hawks were able to quickly get two points but fouled the 36ers again on the other end. One miss, one make, now a two-point game with less than a minute on the clock. 

Both teams proceeded to fumble the game clinching plays, leading to the 36ers securing a rebound as the clock ticked down and the fans went into a frenzy. They found Damon Lowery with only a couple second left, he went up for a contested three but was fouled. Lowery was going to the line with his team down by two, to either lose, battle in overtime or win. With no time left, the outcome was up to him alone. 

The first shot always means the most in times like these, but somehow, the ball rolled from side to side before dropping through the net. The next shot bounced on both sides of the rim, but yet again dropped through. In each shot, Lowery nearly fell to the ground as the ball went in the air. He was not giving off the ‘calm superstar assassin’ vibe, at all. The last shot bounced on each four quarters of the rim, Lowery was already on his knees while the crowd was on their toes, swaying side to side as if to impact the projection of the ball. But again, it went in.

The crowd were in raptures as teammates and even coaches dove on the star. Wollongong went on to win the Grand Final that year but this game seemed almost just as special. The player of the game definitely landed on Melvin Thomas’ feet who dropped a whopping 28 points along with 11 rebounds. Lowery clearly also had his impact stamped out with 20 points, as well as going five from five from the charity stripe. 36ers’ Kevin Brooks played a commendable game, finishing with 26, while shooting 64 per cent from the field. 

Classic Contest: Andrew Gaze 600th Game

NO name is more prestigious, more honoured or more protected in the National Basketball League’s (NBL) great history, than the outstanding Andrew Gaze. If you have been a fan of Draft Central’s running Classic Contest series, then you would be aware that we think very highly of the Australian superstar. When you are the league’s all time leader in points and assists, have 14 ALL-NBL First Team spots with seven MVPs, two championships, all while staying loyal to the same team, the respect placed on Gaze is more than warranted. 

So that is why when looking back at the big man’s 600th game against the Adelaide 36ers, it is a perfect match for younger generations or die-hard fans to reflect upon his greatness because after all the speeches and gift baskets were thrown Gaze’s way, once the buzzer sounded, this game was just like every other. The opponents were not going to give away freebies, in fact, they were not even allowing him to touch the ball in the first few possessions. In the first four minutes of the game, Gaze had not even had a shot attempt, but was able to bait his defender to go one way just so he could cut right to the basket for the easy lay up. No matter how hard the defenders played on him, Gaze always found a way to put the ball through the net. Even at the age of 40, when the athleticism had slowly regressed, his smarts and feel for the game was only peaking, making him a nightmare for all opponents. 

And with that first shot, and the following made three from Gaze on the next play, the rest of the Tigers supporting cast only fed off this energy, shooting a ridiculous six from eight from the three as a collective in the first quarter. What stood out in this game more than anything else was Gaze’s unselfishness in every possession. He would be on a two on one fast break, have a chance to take a decent shot – because who is going to criticise the star that day – but would pass it off to long time supporting star Lanard Copeland, for the better shot. It was these types of plays that made Gaze stand out, and kept the 36ers trailing by 11 at the half. 

With both teams fighting to stay in finals contention, Adelaide had to make some serious coaching adjustments if they wanted to spoil this parade. And that is exactly what they did. Firstly, they started to defend the perimeter tighter, by going almost over all screens and playing off-ball touch defence on the Tigers’ prolific shooters. Secondly the 36ers tried scoring closer to the rim instead of settling for elbow jumpers. This was done by sending multiple bodies to the key to steal offensive rebounds. This actually worked as the 36ers came within six points of the Tigers. But Lindsay Gaze, the Tigers’ long time coach and father of Andrew, was a basketball mastermind. He immediately threw out a small ball lineup, while only keeping the big Mark Bradtke on the floor, that was so offensively talented that the 36ers were finally forced to bench their bigs who were scoring so freely in the paint from fear that they were unable to keep up with the run and gun forwards of the Tigers. 

Unfortunately for the 36ers they made that decision too late and were now entering the fourth quarter down 20 points. From that point on, the game was decided, and it was in large part thanks to Lindsay, an underrated facet of the Andrew Gaze era. The Tigers won by a comfortable margin, 112-95. Everyone, from both teams came up to Gaze to hug and congratulate him, before he was lifted onto the shoulders of his beloved teammates. Gaze was able to punch in 24 points while shooting a jaw dropping 67 percent from the field. Dave Thompson also impressed with 17 points and seven rebounds. For the 36ers, no one played close to the level of Dusty Rychart, who finished the game on 28 points with 21 rebounds.

NBL Classic Contest: Blood Game

EVER heard of the ‘Blood Game’? It was a forgotten classic crested in the rich history of the National Basketball League (NBL), with epic level game play mixed and a historic ending. Fortunately Draft Central have you covered with their rewind of the 1999 meeting between the war-torn Melbourne Tigers and the rising Victorian Titans. 

It was quickly realised by all fans in attendance that this regular season game was going to become the match of the night. Diving for loose balls and fighting for rebounds as both teams came bursting out of the gates with their intensity on full display. All of the characteristics of a great game to come. 

From a fresh perspective, it was clear that Andrew Gaze still had it, even in 1999. At 34 years of age, Gaze displayed superstar-like play making abilities while running the Tigers offence to perfection, all while leading the league in points per game with 29. But it was almost just as clear that the Titans did their homework. Whenever Gaze would hold it at the top of the perimeter, a Titans defender would play nose to nose, going over screens with a supportive big to close the lanes, until the ball left his hands. 

But this would almost always leave an open Tiger to catch it at the elbow, a sacrifice for the Titans that was paying off big time for the Tigers. With Gaze continuing to make the perfect pass and the Tigers’ cast continuing to score the ball, the Tigers were able to establish a 33-22 lead heading into the second quarter.  

The Titans adjusted their game plan immensely, by removing the second man to help, ultimately putting the pressure on Gaze to score man on man. This turned things around instantly in favour of Titans for two reasons. Firstly, after playing a full quarter of taking barely any shots, Gaze was now encouraged to shoot at will, leading to a few clunkers to start the quarter. Secondly, the tempo of the Tigers’ offence was out of sink, as stars like Lenard Copeland, who at that time was sixth in league scoring, was unable to find the looks he had at the start. 

With all of this chaos, as well as a poor effort in rebounding, the Titans were able to muster a massive quarter, leading at the half, 60-53. 

But no Titans fan or player felt safe after watching Gaze on the very first play, drill his way into the paint for a two-pointer, only now reaching double digit points. Gaze, along with what seemed to be every other Tiger, began making every second shot they took. Finishing the third quarter shooting 60 per cent for the game as a team, the Titans were able to stick around by not allowing any easy buckets and clobbering the boards on both ends. Both teams were now facing off for the last quarter, with the Tigers only leading by a point. 

The Titans were on a six game winning streak, held a five game winning streak over the Tigers alone and were now heading into a fourth quarter in front of an ecstatic home crowd. Only a team as prestigious as the Tigers could have a fighting chance. 

The fourth quarter looked like a final. The intensity was epitomised through Frank Drimic’s drive to the rim, resulting in the big man receiving a nasty yet unintentional elbow to the face. The big man who was currently sitting at 21 points and seven rebounds was required to remove the blood spilling from his nose before play was resumed. 

This was only one of many examples of hard charges, diving knees, swinging elbows – all giving the game a worthy name. But with one minute remaining, scores tied, only one team would walk out with their heads high. The Tigers had possession but threw up an ugly contested jumper. The rebound was tipped by both teams and swung out of bounds. The Tigers now had a second go around to win this game. Copeland who had been hot all night missed a contested layup, no timeouts, the Titans running up transition, Darryl McDonald threw to Drimic for the three but missed, forcing over time. 

Just to be expected, the overtime period continued the back and forth nature that had characterised the game all along. Until there was only 35 seconds on the clock, Tigers again with the ball, now down by one. The odd differential meant this play was either to win or lose. Gaze and Copeland played hot potato until Bennett Davison found an opening, easy two. 

With 25 seconds on the clock and a Titans ball, McDonald took two defenders on runs baseline and threw up a floater, nothing but net. Siren goes and the stadium roars in cheers. 

McDonald was just excellent all game so it worked that he took the final shot, finishing the game with 23 points, four rebounds and four assists. A real offensive exhibit for someone who led the league in blocks and steals that season while Gaze was spectacular with 26 points along with seven assists.

These teams faced each other again in the semi-finals, only for Titans to come out on top once again, finishing the series 2-0, just to go all the way to the Grand Final to place second.

Classic Contest: Scott Fisher and North Melbourne Giants win first Grand Final

ALMOST every basketball fan has respect for the National Basketball League (NBL) pioneers, the ones that carved a path for the great league we have today. Yet, even with hardcore fans, most are unable to recite a name other than Andrew Gaze. That is why this Classic Contest in particular provides such an important insight, because it shines a light into the great season and postseason of the North Melbourne Giants, led by NBL trailblazer Scott Fisher. 

Before looking at the historical Game 2 of the 1989 NBL Grand Final, some important context must be provided. Fisher had only been in the league for three seasons, but had already established himself as a household name, losing in the previous year’s Grand Final and winning the MVP in 1989. The team they lost to? Their rival Canberra Cannons, who were now fighting to win back-to-back-to-back Grand Finals. Safe to say, it was time for the North Melbourne Giants to show up. 

For an up-and-coming league only in their tenth season, this game started out perfectly. For the first seven minutes, neither team could find any edge, as both teams gave away the lead twelve different times. It was only when the Cannons dominated the glass, both on offence and defence, that they were able to establish a firm lead that would go as far as 11 points. However, this was shrunk through a successful Giants zone, as it prevented further opponent rebounds and put a stop to fast transition buckets from the Cannons. 

But just by watching this game alone, one can realise why Fisher won two MVPs in his career. Built like a tank, the Californian star was remarkable in driving into the opponent’s rim and either shooting through the defender or kicking it out to an open teammate. A true revolutionary for his time. But even having a superstar like that in your possession, both teams were extraordinarily similar in terms of overall talent and production, evidenced by a 56-all score at the end of half time. 

It was clear to every man on that court that if they wanted to win this game, they had to play at another level – and that is exactly what happened. The Giants began charging to the rim with ferocity, shoulder first into the chests of each Cannon defender. The Cannons picked things up by sending four players to the board on every shot, smashing the rebounding column. Both strategies were equally devastating and matched in their desired effect. 

All that could come from this was a one-point Giants lead coming into the fourth term. This was a perfect situation to see which team had championship DNA. This was also a perfect game to illustrate Fisher’s brilliance. Even when watching this game over 30 years later, any fan can appreciate the sheer court vision displayed, especially once the defence collapsed on the star. 

The defence grew frustrated with Fisher’s playmaking abilities, well ahead of his time, and started throwing out silly fouls leading to a few Cannon players being fouled out. Composed from start to finish, this was all the Giants needed to break away with a small lead that would turn into a final score of 111 to 97, for a momentous Giants victory and their first NBL title. 

The crowd erupted in cheers and a banner hung down into the rafters, ‘The Glasshouse Congratulates GIANTS NBL ‘89 CHAMPIONS’. A perfect end to a perfect season. 

Classic Contest: Andrew Gaze and Tigers win first championship

THEY say great teams become championship teams from how they respond to losses. Well in 1993, the Melbourne Tigers were undisputedly a great team. Led by National Basketball League (NBL) phenom Andrew Gaze, the superstar had dragged the Tigers to five straight finals appearances, but still had nothing to show for it. Funny to think now but Gaze was even thought of as a pretender, ‘the next great talent who could never get over the hump’. The ridicule only peaked the year prior, when Gaze and the Tigers were sent packing after losing the grand final to South East Melbourne Magic. But as of the 31st October, 1993, the Melbourne Tigers were just that, great. 

After going undefeated all playoffs, the Tigers continued their hot streak, winning Game 1 of a tough fought, four point differential, grand final. But things were not as smooth in Game 2, as they took their first loss by seven points. You can imagine the mockery facing Gaze and the Tigers in what would be the final game of the season.  

To add on top of all this historical pressure, the Tigers had to now get it done in front of an emphatic Perth crowd. The pressure clearly took its toll on the Tigers as they failed to make a three until the second quarter, a very unusual occurrence for the sharpshooting team. This was in large part thanks to Gaze’s quiet first half, only dropping 13 points, most coming towards the end of the period. Fortunately, the Melbourne Tigers were not a one man band, and started the third quarter up by just three points. Almost like starting the game fresh again. 

The Wildcats, from start to finish, were exceptional in their ball movement, as they were nearly tripling the Tigers in assists. This was a result of their more team oriented identity, a true characteristic of a championship team. It was with this unpredictability of scoring, that the Wildcats, led by league MVP Ricky Grace, were able to put the ball through the basket in such a consistent fashion. But if they wanted to win this cut throat game, they had to keep Gaze on a tight leash. A hurdle that was being handled nicely, as Gaze only scored two points for the entire third quarter. 

But if the Tigers wanted to win this game, and the silverware, Gaze had to step up. After all, this was his moment. His time to prove exactly why he was considered an Australian basketball prodigy. This entire game centred around whether or not Gaze would rise to championship status or remain a runner up. 

It was all decided in the fourth quarter against a team who had won their last 17 home games who now had their loudest crowd of all. It made it a lot easier that the Wildcats offence turned into a high school run scrimmage quickly, with no player knowing when to shoot or where to stand. This is a classic con of not having a clear cut offensive weapon to run through when things get tough. 

Gaze, who drew a significant amount of attention from the defence, was sensational in finding the best player on the court for the best possible shot and while the Wildcats figured things out towards the end, it was just too late. The Melbourne Tigers won their first NBL championship, beating the Wildcats, 104-102 in a thriller. 

Gaze and his legacy was now set, as he finished the game with 22 points, while also assisting on many of Lenard Copeland’s 35 points. The two will forever go down as Tiger legends for their role in their premiership glory.