WELLINGTON Saints have claimed their twelfth New Zealand National Basketball League (NZNBL) title in one of the most thrilling finishes to a decider. Leading by two points in the dying moments against Hawkes Bay Hawks, a turnover was stolen by the Hawks, raced up the other end, but unable to get a clean look and safely captured by the Saints to hold on as the buzzer sounded for a two-point win. 77-75.
The top of the table Saints looked like they were going to storm to a dominant win early, taking the lead from the get-go and racing to a 12-point advantage at the first break. That was not indicative of what the Te Rauparaha Arena crowd was about to witness however, as the second placed Hawks began to claw their way back into the contest. Getting it back to as little as a one possession game late in the second term, the Hawks headed into the ain break with a 25-19 quarter win, and a six-point deficit on the scoreboard.
That momentum swing continued into the second half as the Hawks completely stagnated the usually free-flowing Saints attack, keeping Wellington to just nine points in the third quarter and piled on 19 themselves to lead by a team-high lead of four points. That lead extended out to six early in the fourth and it looked like an upset might be brewing. As they had all year though, the Saints found a way and dug deep to quickly make up the difference. There were eight lead changes in the final term, with the nail-biting finish one to savour.
Tohi Smith-Milner handed the Saints the lead with three minutes remaining, and Taane Samuel – who beat a tribunal charge to play on the night – added a long-range bomb for a four-point lead. Rhys Vague returned serve with layups either side of another Smith-Milner fadeaway and the difference was just two points with 37 remaining on the clock. The experience of Leon Henry came into the game.
With possession the Saints just needed to hold onto it, as Samuel had a three-point attempt which was rebounded, but then a Kerwin Roach Jr pass under pressure almost proved costly as Devondrick Walker read it well and raced up the other end. To his credit, Roach Jr forced the body contact as Walker drove to the basket and the buzzer sounded with the ball missing.
The Saints were yet again the more efficient team on the night, putting up 50 per cent of their attempts, despite shooting at a lower 25 per cent from range for just seven of 27. It was still enough to be better than the Hawks (three of 18 at 16 per cent efficiency). They were beaten in the rebounds (42-31) but won the assists (14-13), steals (6-5) and blocks (8-5) all narrowly. To the Hawks’ credit they threw everything at the Saints, and had one less turnover (9-10) which resulted in more points from turnovers (17-13). They also had more second chance points (17-4) and bench points (10-6) in an overall strong performance.
Roach Jr won the Most Valuable Player (MVP) on the biggest stage, scoring 16 points, seven rebounds, three assists, two blocks and one steal in the win. Captain Dion Prewster led from the front putting up 15 points, five rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks, and was the only player to fill the full 40 minutes on court. Samuel made the most of his chance being able to play, putting up a team-high 26 points, while Smith-Milner (nine points, four assists, four blocks and three rebounds) was also solid despite inaccuracy.
For the Hawks, Walker had a match-high 31 points and seven rebounds, being the only player to score from long-range with three of eight. Hyrum Harris (22 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks) picked up a double-double for his troubles in what would be his second successive NZNBL Grand Final loss, whilst Vague (eight points, six rebounds) and Derone Raukawa (eight points, two rebounds) also picked up some important points.
It was a memorable decider and the best team for the regular season and on the night lifted the trophy, but not without a real challenge from the Hawks who came so close to glory.
Picture credit: PhotosportNZ via NZNBL