Tag: Ricky Grace

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: 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. 

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. 

Classic Contest: Perth win fourth title in come-from-behind effort

EVERYONE is missing the National Basketball League (NBL). You are not alone. Fortunately, Draft Central is providing content with or without live games. In today’s classic contest, we look at the 2000s Perth Wildcats side for the second time in seven days. Why? Because they made history to start the millennium by becoming the first team in NBL history to win four NBL titles. So it is only right we look at the last night of their monumental championship season. 

The Victoria Titans had lost a thrilling Game 1 by just six points, so with their backs against the wall, they found themselves trying to tie the series in enemy territory. There was a great sense of weight and urgency all the way from when the clock started counting. Actually, even during the pre-game warm ups, when the teams were trying to calm themselves down in the lay up line, a mob of Perth fans seemingly heckled the Titan players. No doubt there was a Grand Final atmosphere that night that was unable to be matched by any other game held that season.  

With all of this clear in both teams’ minds, it made it tougher for Victoria when they came out with a crowd silencing dunk to start the ball game. The Wildcats took a little longer to put a dent on the scoreboard, and while they were dominating the Titans on the glass early, they failed to put the ball through the net. This was unsurprising with all the chips in their lap – higher on the ladder, a lead in the series, home court advantage – and clearly the expectation was for the Titans to win the game. Any added pressure put on top of just participating in a Grand Final, whether positive or not, can make be very nerve wracking, leading to easy misses and silly turnovers. 

That’s exactly how the Wildcats played for the first period, not even able to reach double digits as they trailed 9-15, but leading the game in rebounds. With only two veterans scoring for the Wildcats, this was their lowest scoring quarter of the season. 

The Wildcats came out in the second with a clear game plan: attack the rim and get to the line. A pretty smart way of slowing down momentum for an escalating team while also allowing the shooters to get in their rhythm. In Game 1 they shot 10 from 13 and looked to implement the same game plan this quarter to try and wrestle back some momentum. 

But there was one problem. The Wildcats failed to score even at the charity stripe and went zero for two in their first attempts all game. As you can imagine, the Wildcats ran back into transition feeling very cold. The Titans capitalised, scoring seven straight points to push the lead 18-9. Finally, Marcus Timmons would break the drought for Perth with a corner three. This was just the spark they needed, and like the Titans in the first, Perth went on a run that saw them score eight straight points before the Titans could find the net once more. 

With a little less than three minutes left in the half, the Wildcats led by a point. But by the end of the half, they led by eight. This is why Perth were a championship team, able to produce a remarkable turnaround in such a short amount of time. Even when the shots were not working, they never took their foot off the pedal, and in large thanks to Timmons’ 16 points, they now had the momentum in a closing game. 

Not long before, it had looked like Perth were doomed to play in an elimination Game 3. Now the Titans, who had seven less rebounds and five less assists, were unable to gain an edge in the third and now trailing by ten. 

The truth is, when watching this game back, the Titans never had a chance. The Wildcats carried off the momentum of the crowd and Timmons’ historic shooting from the bench – 7 of 12 from the three. They looked confident, united and unfazed, all characteristics of a championship team. That is exactly what they became that night, winning the game 83-76 and becoming the 1999-2000 NBL Champions.

The Wildcats of this era should be remembered as one of the best teams of their time. Led by players like Anthony Stewart who finished with 20 points and seven rebounds, or of course Paul Rogers, who hit some big time shots to go with his nine points and eight rebounds. The Wildcats would never have been able to function like they did without a player like Ricky Grace, who dropped an impressive 13 points while dishing eight assists and clobbering seven rebounds.

Classic Contests: Stewart wins season defining 1999/2000 NBL game

IT has been 158 days since the last National Basketball League (NBL) game. However, Draft Central are diving back into some basketball content to provide highlights that even the most die hard NBL fans may have never come across. In today’s classic, we look at a jaw dropping game that likely altered the course of an entire NBL season. But first, we need to take it all the way back to the 1999-2000 season. The Perth Wildcats were struggling to find continuity both on and off the court, with new owners and inconsistencies on court as fans reminisced about the glory days of the mid nineties. But things started to slowly change this season with the side rallying after coming off four injury plagued seasons and four early finals exits. 

But in Round 22 of a tough fought NBL season, things were beginning to look up for the Wildcats. But taking on the top seeded Adelaide 36ers, a team who just came off back to back titles, was no easy challenge. The game kicked off with a deep three from Anthony Stewart, to set the tone of the game early. That shot would be the beginning of a competitive battle with no predictable winner in sight. But that was made very clear by the back and forth nature of the first quarter which saw the 36ers finish with a lead of 32-29. 

The Wildcats’ decision to play through Paul Rogers for the majority of the second quarter seemed to be their only working weapon, as the big man was making the perfect play on every possession, unlike the rest of the starters. However, the 36ers utilised a more up beat strategy, relying on transition baskets and catch and shoot jumpers, which was a massive success. This mix of style ensured there was never a stale moment all game. This attraction only elevated when David Stiff dunked over Rogers through a put-back. A revenge moment for Rogers’ poster at the end of the first period. 

The half ended with the Wildcats trailing by 16 points, but with only one loss all season at home, the home crowd’s energy never dispersed. It was fortunate that this was in front of a sell out crowd, because the Wildcats were able to cut the lead to eight heading into a nail-biter final quarter. The lead continued to lessen from 11 to five to two until finally with two minutes remaining, the Wildcats led by a point. But Brett Maher was able to drop some big time points down the stretch for the 36ers, to regain some composure for his side and be a calming presence in attack. 

Down one point with 20 seconds left on the clock, a potential overtime period was looking very slim. This was a win it or lose it play for the Wildcats. The play collapsed, as Ricky Grace was swarmed by defenders left and right, leading to him dishing it out to an open Stewart. After a pump fake, one dribble pull in, Stewart threw up the last shot of the game while an entire sold out crowd gasped at the same time. Nothing but net. The Wildcats clenched a staggering two-point victory 88-86. 

After the celebrations, Stewart walked up to a fan made poster with all the teams left to beat and crossed out the last one, the 36ers. A surreal moment for the season. This comeback win rallied the Wildcats into the next gear – they would only lose two more games for the entire season, including finals. Safe to say, this acted as a momentum booster for them to go on and win their fourth championship in franchise history.

Heal reflects on the greatest “forgotten” game in NBL history

By: Cameron Ross

IN the 21 years that Shane Heal played professional basketball, he would remember at least a handful of games. His first game in the National Basketball League (NBL) for the Brisbane Bullets in 1988, his first game in the National Basketball Association (NBA) at Minnesota in 1996, the championship he won with the Sydney Kings, and of course the four Olympic Games he competed in. However, as his Fox Sports colleagues commentated on the historic match between Melbourne and Illawarra last weekend, Heal’s memory would take him back to a regular season match-up between the Brisbane Bullets and the Perth Wildcats on June 4, 1994, and arguably the greatest “forgotten” game of basketball in Australian basketball history.

“I remember cramping up in regulation and then throughout the overtimes, it was during a hectic period” Heal said. Hectic was an understatement! The 23 year-old Melbournian had just returned from Australian duties to a Bullets side that was playing terrific basketball. The Bullets flew out of the blocks in the ‘96 season, with a seven win and two loss start, placing them in second position behind the now-defunct North Melbourne Giants, who had only dropped the one game. Heal’s Bullets now had to face a competitive rival in the Perth Wildcats, who at eight and three and in third position, were breathing down their necks. Therefore, this game was worth “double” the amount than any other regular season match-up would usually be. Little did every player know, they would all become a part of history on this evening.

Heal started the game well with a beautiful outlet pass on the fast break, setting up the first two points of the match to Roger Smith. This was just the beginning of what would be a terrific game for Heal, who has fond memories of the match. He finished the game with 43 points, seven assists and nine boards, as well as the winning basket. “It was the first time I scored over 40 points in an NBL game and doing it with a game winner was a special memory” Heal said, clearly proud of a milestone achievement.

The 1994 season had yet to see an overtime game, and as the clock wound down with five seconds to go, Brisbane nearly won the game. After an inbound pass with 15 seconds to go, Eric Watterson turned the ball over after some terrific defence from Heal. The ball magically ended up in the hands of the one other man that could do magical things in Leeroy Loggins. Loggins, the American import who was drafted by the Pistons in 1980, sprinted down the court blowing past Watterson, and shot a mid-range runner with five seconds remaining. The shot missed, yet the referee called a foul on Loggins after the shot took place. This was a massive call by the referee, and it bailed out the Wildcats, as there wasn’t enough time for the Bullets to inbound the ball and run a play. Brian Kerle, a man who coached 456 games of NBL, had mixed feelings at the end of the first overtime.

“It’s unfair that there has to be one winner, but both sides can walk away with their heads held high, as it has been one of the best games I have ever seen” said Kerle. However, unbeknownst to “Mr. Basketball”, this game still had a long way to go.

Like the Melbourne v Illawarra match-up last week, the overtime in this game was highlighted by some enormous shots. As the clock wound down at the end of the third overtime period, Heal took advantage of an over-exuberant block attempt by Watterson, and hit a clutch three (his forty-first point of the game) to tie it up with 20 seconds remaining. However, this wasn’t the game-winner that Heal referred to earlier. That would come at the end of the fourth overtime, exactly 18 minutes and seven seconds later.

Towards the end of fourth overtime period, Perth was leading by a point (125-124). The marathon game had gone for approximately an hour longer than a four-quarter game. The crowd were chanting for their Bullets in a desperate attempt to get their side over the line with only 13.7 seconds left and one play remaining. Brisbane Bullets small forward, Rob Sibley inbounded the ball to power forward, Andre Moore and got the ball back immediately. Sibley looked as though he didn’t want it back, and instantly, you see the peroxide blonde hair of Heal fly into action. Heal ran around Sibley and received the ball off him. With the paint crowded, Heal had no way of getting directly to the basket, so he drove to the opposite baseline before hitting a fade-away jumper over the top of James Crawford. With 3.7 seconds left, and a timeout, Perth tried desperately to respond. Andrew Vlahov went desperately close yet the shot missed, and the Brisbane Bullets won the game 127-126.

“Playing Perth in front of 12,000 supporters at home in Brisbane (got us over the line)” Heal said. “You just never realise how unique four overtimes would be, and the fact that it’s been 24 years since the last one is incredible”.

Heal highlights an extremely good point. In the 6696 games and 41 years of NBL basketball, there has only been two games that have gone to four overtime periods. In fact, there has only been four times where an NBL game has reached three overtime periods, highlighting just how rare the feat is.

This simply has to be one of the greatest “unknown” or “forgotten” games of basketball ever played in Australia. I’ll leave the final word to Perth Wildcat legend, Ricky Grace. Grace, who suited up but never entered game due to injury, had a unique take on the game.

“I don’t recall much of that game other than I was hungry and I couldn’t wait until it finished,” he said. “It would’ve been a great game to play in to get your averages up, however!”

Well said, Ricky. I’m sure you were not the only one thinking that.