Huskies continue to be Airs kryptonite, win in OT thriller

FOR the second consecutive time, the Auckland Huskies have upset the league-leading Taranaki Mountainairs in the 2020 Sal’s National Basketball League (NZNBL) season’s second overtime contest of the year, 102-99. Tohi Smith-Milner‘s 22 points and 21 rebounds was a huge factor in the result as the Huskies continued their good form over the last couple of weeks as the season builds towards finals.

AUCKLAND HUSKIES 24 | 20 | 22 | 17 | 19 (102)
TARANAKI MOUNTAINAIRS 23 | 24 | 15 | 21 | 16 (99)

[ … FULL MATCH STATS … ]

Looking at reaching a .500 record for the first time since the start of the season, the Huskies needed to find a way to slow down the one-two punch of Derone Raukawa and Marcel Jones.

Auckland also had the challenge of stopping the Airs bench players from contributing further, as they looked to their own secondary players to chip in wherever they could. Meanwhile, a win for Taranaki would make it five in a row, in what has been a perfect start to the second half of the Sal’s NBL season.

Leon Henry and Smith-Milner’s opening field goals started the Huskies off on the right foot. But as expected, Jones and Raukawa got going early for the Airs answering back with field goals of their own.

Only three minutes into the contest both teams traded baskets profusely with 18 points being scored, as defence seemed to come few and far between passages of play. However, the battle between Raukawa and Auckland’s Izayah Mauriohooho Le’afa was a fierce one early. Nevertheless, it did not stop Taranaki’s point-guard from collecting 11 of his sides first 18 points.

As a strong post-move from Mitchell Dance and aggressive block from Denhym Brooke made it seem like the Airs might edge out a first quarter lead, a three-pointer by Le’afa gave Auckland the 24-23 lead at the first break, capping off a 10-point quarter for the guard.

In a more casual start to the second quarter, it was not until the fourth minute of play that a Jones three and six straight points by Shane Temara allowed Taranaki to take a hold of the game, leading by eight at the mid-way stages of the second.

After Auckland’s timeout, a Smith-Milner three kick started a 9-0 run for the Huskies, handing them back the lead with a couple minutes still to play in the first half.

Two straight buckets for Jones, following an early exit appearing to be a groin injury to Smith-Milner (would return in the second half), sparked another late run for the Airs, giving the Gold and Black a three-point lead at the main break, 47-44.

Kevin Braswell’s squad despite trailing by just three points, failed to really slow down Raukawa and Jones, with each of them scoring 15 and 16 points respectively, while Jones grabbed seven boards too. For the Huskies, their skipper in Henry led from the front with 12 first half points, aiding his side to a 44 per cent shooting and 11-assist first half.

Three minutes into a rather uneventful third quarter, Jones pulled down his tenth rebound, adding another double-double to his impressive track record. However, Smith-Milner’s hustle on the glass helped his side regain the lead the next play and log a double-double of his own just a couple minutes later.

Two three-pointers from Auckland wing Taine Murray with a few seconds remaining in the third, gave Auckland a four-point advantage with ten minutes to go, 66-62, as the Huskies looked to repeat history by knocking off a strong Taranaki side.

Murray would continue the fourth from deep with his fifth three of the game. But the Airs continued to fight back inside the key, as the front court duo of Jones and Temara hounded the rim earning their points up close and at the free-throw line.

For 20-year-old Reuben Fitzgerald, throughout the game he had found himself in the right place at the right time on various occasions, accumulating five rebounds leading up to the first half of the final quarter, four of which were offensive. This was capped off with a key layup and the foul, putting his side four points ahead late in the game, as well as putting enormous pressure on Taranaki to answer.

Moving on to the end of the game, with both sides tied at 83-83, back-to-back offensive rebounds for the Airs and a missed three on the buzzer by Raukawa, would set up the second overtime contest of the season, the second for Taranaki as well.

A nice swing play to Jones would kick off OT with a hook shot in front of the basket, which was followed by threes from Jones again and Raukawa, putting the Airs up by as much as six. Back-to-back buckets from Smith-Milner and Le’afa brought the game to within a single possession and after Murray’s hanging reverse layup, the game was tied with 100 seconds remaining.

As more buckets were traded in the final minute of play, Le’afa’s bonus free-throws created a three-point deficit with 16 seconds on the clock. As Kenneth Tuffin’s layup would bring the contest back to one, bonus free-throws from Le’afa and Smith-Milner would be enough for the Huskies to once again topple the Airs, squeezing out the 102-99 victory.

Even though the Airs shot a pretty consistent 36 per cent from the field, it was not enough to get their side over the edge. Nevertheless, another great night from the duo of Jones and Raukawa was on display.

For Jones, he finished his night with 36 points and 17 rebounds, while Raukawa walked off the court with 28 points and eight assists under his name. Additionally, Temara completed the game with 15 points and eight rebounds.

In a game of bulk statistics, Smith-Milner made his statement game in Thursday’s opener with 22 points and 21 rebounds. His performance was the first 20-20 game in the NZNBL season to this point. Meanwhile, Murray’s team-high 28 points on six three-pointers led the side in scoring. Finally, Le’afa and Henry’s 21 points apiece, rounded out a strong performance from the Huskies’ starting five.

Auckland’s win earned them a record of five wins and five losses, putting them just outside the top four as they eye up the bottom of the table Nelson Giants on Sunday night.

Following last night’s contest, the Airs will look to bounce back against a top four foe in the fourth seeded Manawatu Jets, who could challenge for the top spot in the following week if they can get the job done this weekend against Taranaki.

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