By Paulo Kennedy, Pagemasters
Tip-off: Friday, February 9, 7.30pm (local), WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong
TV: NBL.TV (live)
Last time they met: Melbourne 80 (Walker 19, Goulding 17, Scott 16) d Wollongong 72 (Forman 17, Deleon 10) OT, Round 12, WIN Entertainment Centre
Something is going to feel a little out of place this Friday for Wollongong Hawks General Manager Mili Simic and his team’s fans.
“It’s going to be the first time in 19 years that neither Glen Saville or Mat Campbell have suited up for the Hawks,” he said.
“When you do the introductions and there’s no number 12 and no number 32 for the first time it’s going to be strange.”
But rather than dwelling on the growing list of players lost, Simic has put the challenge out to the Hawks’ young veterans to fill the breach and he’s confident they can do the job.
“We’ve had a pretty loyal group in our squad the past few years,” he said.
“Oscar (Forman), Laz (Larry Davidson), Timmy (Tim Coenraad), Grubes (Dave Gruber) and Rhys (Martin), it’s now time for those guys, along with (Tyson) Demos and (Daniel) Jackson, to really step up and really represent the Hawks.”
Simic noticed the buzz about town after the Hawks' stirring win in Adelaide and said the team’s newly invigorated underdog status wouldn't upset their supporters one bit.
“As a group it doesn’t matter to us, but to our fans we’re still that small regional city, they’ve backed us through a range of things from the bottom working our way to the top; they’ve seen it all,” he said.
“(Beating Adelaide) breaks the losing streak but it also shows our fans that with the players we’ve still got we can put it together on the court and win games.”
And this wee's game is as important as any, with Wollongong and Melbourne tied for the season series with two games remaining and the Hawks having to make some adjustments after losing at home to the Tigers on New Year’s Eve.
“Gordie (McLeod) and the coaching staff are all over it,” Simic said.
“Across the players, coaches, staff and our supporters we are all saying ‘this is the situation we’re in and we back ourselves no matter what’.”
In the final 7min 40sec against the Tigers on New Year’s Eve the Hawks scored only eight points on 2-of-9 shooting. Melbourne collected 10 rebounds to one in that time and scored 15 points.
When Oscar Forman and Larry Davidson combine for four or more offensive rebounds the Hawks are 5-2, but only 4-9 when they don’t.
Wollongong’s small forwards were out-rebounded 14-3 against Perth last week.
Seth Scott blocked two shots against Wollongong in Round 12 to be one of the league-leaders averaging 1.3 a game. In six games since he has managed just one rejection.
The Tigers can be a dominant force defensively and on the boards with their length, but have not mastered doing so for 40 minutes just yet.
They will have to this week, the Hawks will be particularly focused on execution after falling apart in Perth and the emotion of Saville’s departure will likely take their effort to new levels.
When Wollongong have won the possession game they have been near-unbeatable this year, especially when it leads to recycled shots for open shooters.
An exception was the last time these teams met, with Melbourne’s length shutting the Hawks down in the final minutes - as they have done to many teams recently - and their unpredictable stars making big plays.
While the Tigers have shown they can win close games, the Hawks will have extra motivation this week and have form on the board on big occasions.
Prediction: Hawks by 2