By Grant Chapman, Pagemasters
The defending champion New Zealand Breakers are one win away from their much converted three-peat after dispatching the Perth Wildcats 79-67 at a sold-out Vector Arena in Auckland.
The titleholders drew away in the second quarter and always had the answers the rest of the contest to hold their challengers at bay.
Daryl Corletto led the Breakers with 19 points at 70 per cent, including three three-pointers. League MVP Cedric Jackson had 14 points, five rebounds and four steals before fouling out and Mika Vukona accumulated a 10-point, 10-rebound double.
For Perth, Kevin Lisch had 19 points and five rebounds, Shawn Redhage 17 points, four rebounds and four assists, and Matt Knight also recorded a double-double (13 points, 12 rebounds).
“As we expect in a finals battle, it was a tough game,” observed Breakers coach Andrej Lemanis.
“Both teams were after it. We hung in there and matched the physical battles we needed to match, but there’s still plenty of work to be done.”
The contest got off to a furious start with Perth scoring the first three baskets. Three-pointers from Greg Hire and Redhage had their advantage out to seven points, but the Breakers found their breath to draw level at 12-12.
The home team began to draw away in the second quarter, opening a double-figure lead off a three-pointer from Corey Webster.
Breakers forward Tom Abercrombie produced one of the highlights of the season with a spectacular offensive board he dunked home in one movement over the top of Knight.
By half-time the Breakers were 44-35 up and starting to look ominous. Perth's rebounding had actually generated more scoring opportunities, but were converting only 29 per cent.
By contrast, the titleholders had connected on 46 per cent from long distance and also dominated around the paint (18-10).
Rhys Carter’s three soon after the restart brought the Cats back within six points, but their opponents responded in style.
Jackson found space for a remarkable spinning reverse lay-up, Corletto converted a three-point play and Abercrombie slammed down another dunk as the margin grew to 14 points.
It was still 11 heading into the final stretch and although Matt Knight brought his team back within six, Corletto hit a fadeaway and then an open triple from the corner to restore some double-figure comfort.
Corletto and Webster combined to shoot 11-of-14 from the floor, perhaps a result of Damian Martin’s absence from the Perth defence.
“He’s our starting point guard, our engine room,” lamented Wildcats coach Rob Beveridge.
“He runs everything for us.”
Centre Alex Pledger put the exclamation point on this result with a block on Everard Bartlett’s three-point attempt and then ran the floor for an unopposed dunk.
While Perth kept chipping away they could get no closer, and now must win at their own stadium to keep the series alive.
“We’ve been here before,” said Lemanis.
“Last year, we went there and lost Game Two, so we’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves.”
By the end of the game, Perth had shot 28 per cent from the field and attempted 34 three-pointers, almost half their total.
“We can’t win a game when we shoot the ball that poorly,” rued Beverdige.
“To only lose by 12 was pretty amazing.”
New Zealand Breakers 79 (Corletto 19, Jackson 14, Vukona 10)
Perth Wildcats 67 (Lisch 19, Redhage 17, Knight 13)
Crowd: 9330 at Vector Arena