Otago grounds Jets, Nuggets solidify top spot ahead of Finals Week

IN a battle of the top two teams in the 2020 Sal’s National Basketball League (NBL), the Otago Nuggets out-bodied a persistent Manawatu side to claim the top seed on the ladder after grounding the Jets 97-85.

This comes after MVP-candidate Jordan Ngatai put on a spectacular performance last night, with each victory building much needed momentum as Finals Week fast approaches for next Tuesday.

OTAGO NUGGETS 23 | 29 | 28 | 17 (97)
MANAWATU JETS 26 | 22 | 16 | 21 (85)

[ … FULL MATCH STATS … ]

With the minor premiership on the line, both sides knew the importance of last night’s meeting, but with the two teams possibly matching up in the qualifying final, neither side was too keen on giving away too much in terms of tactics. Nevertheless, the game would go ahead, as Manawatu got off on the right foot to begin last night’s proceedings with a 10-2 start, thanks to their marquee signings in Jayden Bezzant, Thomas Vodanovich and Hyrum Harris. The slow start for Otago was quickly remedied, as Joshua Aitcheson’s consecutive threes brought the Nuggets back to a level playing field halfway through the opening period. However, back-to-back threes from Vodanovich (his third of the quarter) and Nicholas Fee placed momentum back into the hands of the Jets heading into the first intermission. The Jets’ 26-23 first quarter lead was a fragile one, as Jordan Ngatai got his stroke going in the last few seconds.

Vodanovic’s rhythm continued into the second and eventually half-time, as he opened up the term with another triple to add to his name, but Otago’s Kane Keil returned the favour with one of his own beginning what would become an action packed second period. Even though Manawatu maintained their impressive 50 per cent shooting in the second term, it was an even more impressive 10 minutes for Otago’s Ngatai. The number one draft pick built upon his strong first quarter to possess 22 points at the main intermission along with four rebounds and four assists. Ngatai’s counterpart in Vodanovich also had himself a solid first-half performance, constructing a two quarter 17-point effort, as his side trailed by a slim four points at the main break, 52-48.

Keil’s and-one gave the Nuggets a lovely seven-point edge to begin the second half, as the game’s tempo slowed down for both sides for most of the third quarter. Six minutes in, a technical foul to Taane Samuel allowed the free-throws of Ngatai and Akiva McBirney-Griffin to gift the Nuggets their biggest lead of the contest, leading 73-60. A few minutes later, Richard Roger’s knock-down three would put the Nuggets up by a devastating 18 points, setting up a fourth quarter that needed to be perfect from the Jets if they were to crawl their way back into the uphill battle. Despite Manawatu forcing 11 turnovers from the Nuggets, Otago did a beautiful job moving the ball, accruing 18 assists to the Jets’ 10 prior to the final period. Additionally, the Nuggets owned a plus-six in the rebounding numbers through three-quarters, signalling a hard-earned lead up to this point.

A 7-2 start for Otago in the fourth extended their lead past 20 points for the first time in the game, as a frustrated Manawatu outfit could not find a way to body up against a strong Nuggets line-up. But the Jets would fight back, through getting to the free-throw line and from deep thanks to Nelson Kirksey, capping off a tidy 10-0 run to bring Manawatu to within eight points. However, once again, Keil made his points count, knocking down another three to halt the comeback with a couple minutes remaining and extending the Nuggets’ lead back to double digits. After knocking down his sixth and seventh free throws, Ngatai polished off a resilient Jets side to help Otago secure their ninth win of the season with the 97-85 outcome, thus obtaining the minor premiership in subsequent fashion.

Following their win against Manawatu last night for the third time this season, it continues their winning streak to four-straight across the competition and solidifies their top spot on the ladder. This comes as Brent Matehaere’s squad shot and passed the lights out in the win. In terms of shooting, the Nuggets maintained a conversion rate of 46 per cent throughout four quarters and 37 per cent from three (13/35). Alongside this was Otago’s ball-movement, as they stockpiled 20 assists, seven more than the Jets in that statistic specifically.

You could point to a lot of factors for last night’s result, but there is no denying the monstrous effort from New Zealand Tall-Black, Ngatai, as the 27-year-old garnered 37 points, seven rebounds and five assists in a beautiful display of effort and accuracy. On top of Ngatai’s performance, three others dropped double-digit totals, as Keil’s 16, Jordan Hunt’s 15 and Aitcheson’s 14 points helped Otago over the line tremendously. Once again, Vodanovich rang true as Manawatu’s back bone, collecting a formidable stat-line of 28 points and six rebounds. Harris’ 20 points and 12 rebounds reflected a successful night out on an individual level, while Bezzant had a relatively quiet night, after acquiring just 13 points and five rebounds from the point.

The win for Otago establishes the Nuggets as the team to beat in the postseason, seeing their record improve to nine wins and four losses, the League’s undisputed best as they await the Nelson Giants in their season closer. The loss for the Jets keeps them ranked second in Sal’s NBL for the time being, as the Franklin Bulls require the Jets to lose their final contest against the Auckland Huskies on Saturday, as well as a win of their own and favourable results to account for the point differentials.

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