Shawn Long dominated for four quarters but Casper Ware was the man in overtime as Melbourne United outlasted New Zealand Breakers on Sunday in a season-defining battle.
It was quite the dramatic way to get there, but in the end the reigning champs secured their playoff berth by improving to a 16-8 record on the season. That keeps them in first place and locked in to reach the finals along with the Perth Wildcats and Sydney Kings.
For the Breakers, it was a heartbreaking way to lose to Melbourne for the second time this weekend and to leave their playoff dreams in tatters with two rounds and four games to go.
Early in the final quarter it looked like Melbourne would canter to their fourth straight win but the Breakers knew they desperately needed a win to keep their finals hopes rolling.
They gave their all into the final minutes as Long (28 points, 14 rebounds, six assists) repeated battled his way to the hoop and Shea Ili (18 points, five assists) drove fearlessly to lead their side back into the game.
Corey Webster (16 points) didn’t enjoy his best night but with three seconds left he had no hesitation letting a three-pointer fly and it went down to tie scores at 96-all.
Ware’s shooting record went to 2/15 as his half-court heave hit the backboard and bounced out but in the extra session Melbourne will always play through their import point guard and he lifted for the occasion with eight points and an assist.
Ware’s three-point play and his dish-off to DJ Kennedy (23 points) looked to be enough to make sure of the win but Melbourne needed a few timely defensive players from Ware and Mitch McCarron (25 points, eight rebounds, six assists) to win 111-102.
McCarron’s performance was a new career-high in the NBL while his explosive athleticism was on show midway through overtime as he leapt high to knock a Long free throw from off the rim after it bobbled along the top.
Melbourne coach Dean Vickerman said two wins this round locked in back-to-back finals appearances for the first time since the team rebranded.
“We are trying to build something and have sustained success. We’ve got that one, now we have the opportunity to try and lock in home court advantage and that’s the next goal for this group,” Vickerman said.
“Shawn Long really turned it up, he was ultra-aggressive in getting to the foul line and he played like the guy we have seen in recent times. He was a handful for us.
“In overtime we ran pretty simple offence. Casper hadn’t had his greatest night but he still made some pretty good decisions for us down the stretch as well.”
New Zealand knew they had to lift after a horror night against Melbourne in Auckland on Friday night and they were much, much better.
Breakers coach Kevin Braswell liked his club’s improvement but was disappointed they couldn’t keep with Melbourne in overtime.
“We were way better than we were on Friday. I thought we did a good job of going for the hit first, we jumped out early but Melbourne is a great team, number one for a reason,” Braswell said.
“They got up 15 on us in the second half and we fought back. It’s tough to swallow that one as we know how desperately we needed that win, especially with Brisbane losing. It hurts, it hurts.”
In the overtime period, Melbourne showed why they are finals bound as their big guns fired in the big moments.
Melbourne now gears up for a blockbuster in Sydney Friday night against the Kings while the Breakers play Adelaide 36ers in Auckland on Thursday.
NBL ROUND 16
MELBOURNE UNITED 111 (McCarron 25, Kennedy 23, Barlow 13)
NEW ZEALAND BREAKERS 102 (Long 28, Ili 18, Webster 16)