By Grant Chapman, Pagemasters
Forward Mika Vukona produced another inspirational performance to will his New Zealand Breakers to their 12th straight win, 92-84 over the Wollongong Hawks at the North Shore Events Centre.
The defending champions scored the first 10 points of the game and although their guests twice closed within a handful of points – including just three in the final minutes – the Hawks were never able to complete their comeback.
Vukona led his team with 24 points, including a crucial three-point play in the final two minutes to finally give his team some comfort. Tom Abercrombie had 17 points and centre Alex Pledger compiled 12 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks.
Hawks point guard Adris Deleon led all scorers with 33 points and single-handedly got Wollongong into contention down the stretch. Oscar Forman scored 21 points, including 13 in the third quarter.
The Breakers threatened to blow their rivals off the court early, with Vukona particularly aggressive, rattling up eight points and no fouls before his first spell on the bench.
“I was just feeling it, really,” he said afterwards.
“CJ (Bruton) told me to come out aggressive and for the first time, I listened to him. I just took it on myself and things were falling for me.”
After that initial shock the Hawks dug in, and although the lead reached 17 late in the second period a late 7-1 spurt had Wollongong only 37-48 in arrears at the break.
“We had opportunities to put a really big margin on them by halftime and we let them back,” said Lemanis.
The biggest point of difference was turnovers, the Breakers forced their opponents into 11 mistakes and held an 11-4 advantage in scoring off those errors.
Forman, who often produces his best performances against his old club, stepped up after the restart, hitting three times from afar to help his side within six points.
The champions simply turned their defence up another notch and reeled off nine unanswered points to restore some comfort to their lead.No margin is safe with Deleon around and he scored his side’s first 14 points of the final period to drag Wollongong back within three with two minutes left.
“We’re really struggling for cohesiveness with all that’s happened to this group,” reflected Hawks coach Gordie McLeod.
“There were a number of times where it would have been pretty easy for teams to throw the towel in, but our guys worked extra hard and kept competing – that’s all you can ask.”
But Vukona came back with the night’s biggest play and then another basket in traffic to ease the Breakers clear of danger.
“I could see Tom’s three-pointer was going to miss – I could just tell,” he said.
“The guys were trying to box me out, but I felt I had the inside edge and the ball just came to me.”
New Zealand Breakers 92 (Vukona 24, Abercrombie 17, Pledger 12, Jackson 11)
Wollongong Hawks 84 (Deleon 33, Forman 21, Grant 10)
Crowd: 4000 at North Shore Events Centre, Auckland