Somehow, the Perth Wildcats have won through to another NBL grand final, keeping alive their chances of claiming a three-peat of title wins.
The Cats will play in their sixth NBL grand final series in eight seasons under coach Trevor Gleeson, after clinching a thrilling eight-point win in the deciding game of their semi-final series against the Illawarra Hawks at RAC Arena on Monday night.
They will host the first two of five games of the championship series, regardless of who wins the deciding clash in the other semi-final between Melbourne United and South East Melbourne Phoenix on Tuesday.
After dominating the first half, Perth withstood a spirited comeback from the Hawks, led by Sam Froling and Justin Simon, to win Game 3, 79-71.
Perth led by 16 points in the first half, but by only four with one minute left on the clock. The Hawks had several chances to get even closer.
Some big plays by Luke Travers and Mitch Norton nailed the victory.
Gleeson paid tribute to the character of his players, while acknowledging the fightback from the Hawks.
“We withstood a pretty big storm in the second half. I thought we came out pretty placid in the third,” he said.
“We were timid, cruising, not screening or moving the ball. That was a recipe for disaster.
“To get into the grand final without your best player (Bryce Cotton), speaks volumes of their character.”
Perth looked down and out after losing the opening game of the series, with the Hawks pinching a rare win in Perth in Game 1.
Both Travers and Norton had to pass fitness tests before being cleared to play on Monday. And Cotton watched another game from the sidelines.
Norton provided the spark Perth needed when they were being challenged, as well as nine crucial points in the last term.
Froling top scored for the Hawks with 14 points, while Tyler Harvey was restricted to just 10 after picking up four fouls in the first half.
Todd Blanchfield top scored for Perth with 24 points.
Perth led 23-15 at quarter-time, with Blanchfield already dropping 10 points. He had 21 at the main break.
Justinian Jessop was struggling for the Hawks at the offensive end. He tried to set a cracking pace early, but made just one of five attempted field goals for the first quarter.
Coach Brian Goorjian said his side had played as they set out to. Some things just didn’t go their way.
“We thought a few of their guys had been banged up; the only chance we had to win tonight was to use the full court,” he said.
“The shots we got were pretty good for us.
“We fouled the shooter a lot and put them on the line a lot, which gave them the (half-time) lead.
“If we didn’t do that, it was only a four or six-point game.”
The challenge from the Hawks came hard at the start of the third term.
They scored the first 12 points of the term in just five minutes to get the margin back to only two points.
The Wildcats managed just nine points for the term, knocking down just three of 17 field goal attempts.
Josh Mooney’s 26th double-double for the season, reached just before three-quarter-time, gave the Cats an important four-point buffer going into the final term.