THE Perth Wildcats are one game away from a second straight title after last night’s come-from-behind win over Illawarra Hawks in game 2 of the best of five NBL grand final series.
After beating the Hawks 89-77 in game one in Perth on Sunday, the Wildcats overturned a 45-40 half-time deficit to prevail by the identical 89-77 score line.
Bryce Cotton led Perth with 20 points and Casey Prather added 18, while Angus Brandt (15 points) filled a huge void after Matt Knight had to be assisted off the court early in the third term, suffering apparent concussion symptoms.
Captain Damian Martin saved his best for crunch time, splashing three clutch three-point bombs to put the game out of Illawarra’s reach down the stretch.
Perth coach Trevor Gleeson said his team showed poise under pressure when it fell behind by 11 in the first quarter.
“If we were an immature team it’s easily to get thrown off, but it’s an experienced team and they don’t get rattled easily,” Gleeson said.
“It’s hard to win here anytime and we’ve got a lot of respect for Illawarra. The series isn’t over yet.
“Damo (Martin) is used to people leaving him open and he works hard on his shot.
“Our defence was outstanding in the third quarter to hold them to 14. Our defence is our bread and butter, it’s in our DNA.”
AJ Ogilvy and Rotnei Clarke scored 21 points apiece for the Hawks but no other player reached double figures.
The home side led at quarter-time and half-time but were out-muscled and out-hustled in a decisive third quarter.
Perth won the rebound battle again and made 51 per cent of its shots compared to a deflating 39 per cent for the Hawks.
The Wildcats are on the cusp of their eighth championship, which would put them four clear of nearest clubs.
Hawks coach Rob Beveridge felt his team was not so much out-played as they were outworked, receiving a harsh lesson in rebounding from the league’s best, just like they did in game 1.
The Hawks wasted no time asserting themselves on Wednesday, particularly Ogilvy, who played like a man possessed in the opening period with seven points, four rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a steal.
The 28-year-old fueled an early 14-4 run with front court partner Nick Kay (six points), while Clarke added five off the bench.
Illawarra’s four offensive rebounds in the period exceeded their entire output for the prior game and helped them to a 24-18 quarter-time lead.
Brandt provided the Wildcats with a solid target in the paint and the irrepressible Prather provided his usual high wire act, as Perth cut the margin to one.
Beveridge was literally knocked off his chair midway through the second period when he felt the full force of Martin’s desperate dive to save a loose ball in front of the Illawarra bench.
The pair laughed before Martin sprinted back into action and Beveridge straightened his suit, followed by a bow to amused Hawks fans.
Back on the court, Illawarra kept the Wildcats at arm’s length, pushing the lead up to 40-34 with a little under two minutes remaining in the half.
The Cats typically hung tough and trailed 45-40 at half-time behind Prather’s and Brandt’s collective 27 points on 10 from 13 shooting.
Clarke led the home team with 15, while Ogilvy had 13 to go with seven boards and two blocks.
The Hawks had their noses in front 17-16 in the rebound battle, including six offensive boards to Perth’s three.
The visitors suffered a setback when the hard-working Knight was helped to the locker room less than a minute into the second half after innocuous contact with Prather, and Illawarra took advantage.
They pushed the margin back up to eight, but the defending champs regrouped and grabbed their first lead since the first period, as Illawarra’s rebounding woes resurfaced.
They kept their noses in front on retiring veteran Shawn Redhage’s free throws and took a 63-59 lead into the final quarter.
Forward Jesse Wagstaff was the next Perth player to be assisted from the court after collecting Mitch Norton’s elbow two minutes into the fourth period.
The injuries only seemed to strengthen the Wildcats’ resolve and they took control with a decisive 10-0 run, punctuated by a pair of three-point daggers by Martin.
Beveridge said his team let itself down in the rebounding department again.
“I was very disappointed with our third quarter. We went soft in the third quarter and got out-rebounded, and that’s the difference in winning a game and winning a championship,” Beveridge said.
“They’re just relentless. They’re a team that knows how to apply pressure and knows how to win and if we can match that tenacity we’re right in this series.
“We probably played better than we did in game 1, but so did Perth. This series has gone up another level.”
The series shifts back to Perth for game 3 on Sunday afternoon, while Game 4 (if required) will be played in Hawks territory next Friday.
Perth Wildcats 89 (Cotton 20, Prather 18, Brandt 15)
Illawarra Hawks 77 (Clarke 21, Ogilvy 21, Kay 8)