Somehow the Illawarra Hawks withstood a spirited Cairns Taipans fightback and the heat in Canberra to keep their playoff hopes just alive with a nail-biting 82-81 victory at AIS Arena.
Looking to bounce back from a disappointing loss in Melbourne on Wednesday, the Hawks turned it on in a ferocious start in the 318th NBL game held in Canberra, and the first since September 2008.
Then Sydney Spirit coach Rob Beveridge led his team to victory that night and did so again on Saturday. But the Hawks did it the hard way despite scoring the opening 11 points of the game and leading by as much as 18 in the first half.
But the Snakes hit back and regained the lead during the third quarter. Then despite the Hawks appearing to have the game won with time running out, the Snakes didn’t go away and were within a point when they had last possession after forcing Todd Blanchfield to travel in his 250th game.
DJ Newbill (17 points, five assists) couldn’t get a shot up and then Melo Trimble (24 points, five boards, three assists) couldn’t make his open three after the offensive board on the buzzer with the Hawks winning by a point to keep their season alive at 11-12.
Brian Conklin had an efficient afternoon for the Hawks with 15 points and eight rebounds on 6/11 shooting.
Blanchfield had 11 points in game 250 with Dave Andersen adding 11 points and six rebounds, Cedric Jackson 10 points and Tim Coenraad nine. AJ Ogilvy produced nine points and 10 rebounds.
Beveridge admitted his team’s lapses continue to cause concern.
“My job is to put a game plan together, and you sit down and watch countless games and trends and stats, strengths and weaknesses, and you come out and execute and sit back think ‘this is pretty good’,” he said.
“But then all of a sudden you go away from what works and unfortunately that’s happened too many times. We’ve got five games to go and it’s like we’re still learning a system we know can work.”
The Taipans (now 4-19) were playing their third game in five days and lacked energy for most of the first half before they got their second wind and went within a whisker of stealing an unlikely victory.
Illawarra led by 18 in the second quarter but failed to put their foot down and almost paid the ultimate price.
It could’ve easily been a nightmare loss for the Hawks if Jordair Jett hadn’t blocked Newbill’s potential game-winner on the buzzer.
Taipans coach Mike Kelly lamented his team’s poor start.
“Illawarra came out with more energy and then we had to battle for two-and-a-half or three quarters to take a lead, but it was tough, and it’s just not good enough,” Kelly said.
“At the same time, this team has heart and they keep going and play for each other, and they made plays to get back in the game. We’re fighting through and trying to get better for the rest of this season and into next.”
Both teams were desperate to get away to a positive start but the Taipans quickly found themselves down 11-0 and took almost four minutes to open their account.
Jackson looked like the MVP version of himself with 10 first quarter points, while Conklin, Andersen and Coenraad had seven apiece, as the Hawks took a 34-22 lead into the second period.
The margin might’ve been significantly greater if not for the irrepressible Trimble’s 12 points.
A blowout was on the cards when the Hawks built an 18-point lead five minutes from half-time, but they dropped their guard and allowed the Taipans to close the gap to 50-41 at the main break.
The worrying signs of the second quarter intensified for Hawks coach Rob Beveridge as an inspired Newbill led a revival.
Cairns grabbed their first lead of the game before Illawarra briefly steadied to lock it up at 66-all with a quarter to play.
The Taipans got their noses in front again but the Hawks fought back to lead by five and held on down the stretch for a heart-stopping win.
Beveridge knows the importance of the win as they continue to chase a playoff berth.
“We’re going after everybody to give ourselves a chance to make the playoffs, but it’s out of our control,” Beveridge said.
“Everybody’s written us off and we know it’s going to be hard, but mathematically we can make it.”
The Hawks next face the Wildcats in Perth next Friday while the Taipans are back home on Saturday to host the Adelaide 36ers.
NBL ROUND 15
ILLAWARRA HAWKS 82 (Conklin 15, Blanchfield 11, Andersen 11)
CAIRNS TAIPANS 81 (Trimble 24, Newbill 17, Hall 10, Walker 10)