Vukona return sparks Giant win over Rams, ends four-game slide

THE Nelson Giants’ runaway fourth quarter has led to the ninth straight downfall of the Canterbury Rams in the 2020 Sal’s National Basketball League (NBL), as the return of Mika Vukona helped spark a strong performance, despite a limited run on the floor last night.

NELSON GIANTS 13 | 29 | 22 | 16 (80)
CANTERBURY RAMS 22 | 15 | 20 | 7 (64)

[ … FULL MATCH STATS … ]

While it remains very unlikely for either the Giants or Rams to make the top four, both teams had a lot of pride on the line before squaring up last night in Saturday’s opener. The Giants, who looked at ending their four-game skid, had to knock off a Rams side that was desperate for a win, having lost eight straight contests prior to the matchup.

Good news for Nelson straight off the bat, New Zealand Hall of Famer and 162-time Tall Black in Vukona made his first appearance for the Giants, coming off the bench in his side’s bid to gain some room off the bottom of the standings. Meanwhile, the Rams’ chances looked bleak, as key guard Taylor Britt was absent due to an elbow injury.

Nevertheless, Reuben Te Rangi, Benjamin Carlisle-Smith and Alexander Talma got their squad going early, opening up a 6-0 start to the clash of the two South Island sides.

The advantageous start for the Rams would set the tone for the majority of the first term, pushing their lead to as much as nine points off the back of two free-throws from Te Rangi. The conversion rate was the ultimate factor in obtaining the 22-13 lead at quarter-time for Canterbury, as the squad shot over 40 per cent from the field compared to the Giants, who shot under 30 per cent.

After Vukona made his first basket of the season 37 seconds into the second period, it seemed as though Nelson started to gain a little bit of momentum. But, a well organised and prepared Canterbury side parried most of their runs during the first few minutes of the second.

Following an injury scare to the Rams’ Samuel Smith, Canterbury continued to outperform the Giants in all methods of scoring. Methods varied from points in the paint to second chance points to points off the bench, as Mick Downer’s squad flexed their depth late in the first half.

An unsportsmanlike foul on Te Rangi allowed Nelson back into striking range, as Nicolas Trathen’s technical free-throws and Theo Johnson’s three helped cap off an effective 13-0 run giving Nelson the lead for the first time in the game. Te Rangi’s three tied the contest up, but a Dane Brooks and-one and dunk solidified the half-time lead at the main break, giving his team the five-point edge 42-37. Thanks to his last-minute run of plays, Brooks led the way for his team in scoring and rebounding prior to the third quarter, adding 10 points and five rebounds to the cause, while Te Rangi was held responsible for his 11 individual points.

A glaring red light for Canterbury’s first half downfall was in the category of points from turnovers. Nelson’s defence led to eight points from forcing takeaways, as the Rams were yet to produce in that fashion. Despite this, the Rams contributed 15 second-chance points, compared to Nelson’s 11, highlighting one of the few good things the bottom-dwellers of the league did up until half-time. The Rams’ Jack Exeter knocked down a lead-off three to get Canterbury off on the right foot, as Canterbury quickly levelled the playing field a couple minutes into the second half with both sides sitting on 44 points apiece.

With both sides going basket-for-basket in the middle stages of the third period, Nelson could start to exploit the Rams’ holes in their defence, separating themselves from their opponents and after Johnson’s And-1 dunk, they could start to see the light at the end of the tunnel leading by as much as seven points with just over a quarter to play.

That lead would remain for the rest of the third phase as a Mac Stodart’s alley-oop layup on the buzzer gave the Rams a modicum of hope going into the final ten minutes, as they continued to search for answers to lock down the key (the Rams allowed 38 points in the paint through three quarters).

Nelson’s frontcourt started get results as the big-man duo of Mike Karena and Vukona helped extend their team’s lead into double-digits for the first time of the night, leading 72-57 with just under eight minutes remaining. Following this, everything started to fall, as Alexander McNaught added to his impressive performance with a three-pointer of his own.

Another scoring run from the Giants would put the result beyond all doubt all the way to the final whistle, as Nelson ran away with the contest by a potent 16-point deficit, 80-64. It therefore ended their four-game losing stretch and improving their record to four wins and seven losses. On the other side of the tape, the Rams move a game and a half back on the standings, losing their ninth straight after a string of close defeats over the last few weeks.

Brooks led the charge for the Giants, standing with Karena as one of the only two players to reach double digits in scoring. The shooting guard remained reliable from the field, hammering home 26 points and eight rebounds in his man of the match performance. For Karena, 11 points and five rebounds completed a modest performance off the bench, as Vukona made a substantial impact in his return to the hardwood (eight points, three rebounds and two assists).

While each basket for the Rams seemed to be a challenge, Te Rangi continued his good start to the season with a team-high 15 points and four rebounds. Meanwhile, Toby Gillooly earned his salt at the free-throw line attributing five of his ten points to the charity strike, going five from six.

Both sides encounter the Auckland huskies in their next on-court appearances, with Nelson to face the side in the next 24 hours and looking to close the gap for fifth spot in the standings. Next up for the Rams, they can look forward to some rest as the injury woes continue for the Red and Black, lining up against the Huskies on Wednesday night looking to avoid a double-digit losing streak after their ninth consecutive loss last night.

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