He may not have been with the group for long, but import Bryce Cotton showed he has Wildcat genes with a 34-point masterclass as Perth ambushed the Snakes to take Game 1 of their semi-final series 91-69 on Friday.
The perennial NBL powerhouse always comes up big at this time of year, and the 24-year-old NBA-calibre point guard inked himself as the latest Perth post-season success story with one of the best individual performances the league has seen all season.
In fact, no Wildcat has scored more in a playoff game since Shawn Redhage dropped 35 in 2008.
After going a scintillating 5/5 from downtown in his only other visit to the Cairns Convention Centre, Cotton had his deadly jumpshot on full display again to rain on Cairns’ parade and declare their championship prospects are as good as any.
After the game, Perth coach Trevor Gleeson pointed toward the improvement of the Cotton-Prather duo as the reason for their high-level play.
“We were moving the ball east-to-west, and we’ve got Bryce on the move and Casey on the move being aggressive. That’s what we want to do,” he said.
“It’s the synergy [with Cotton and Prather]. When you start playing, you know when you can push and when one player is pushing you can read off it. It’s just trusting each other.
“They are two very unselfish players. They’ll be aggressive and if the shot is there, they’ll take it. But they aren’t afraid to move the ball, and that helps all our players. They’ve been playing well together.”
Meanwhile, Taipans coach Aaron Fearne said his side, “got taught a lesson”.
“We didn’t do some fundamental things very well. Offensively we didn’t move the ball well enough. It’s not a one-man show. When you play playoff basketball you’ve got to be able to move the ball and play and a team and get a rhythm going that way,” Fearne said.
“It’s our mindframe. We’ve played 28 games this year, plus the pre-season. We’ve played plenty of games where a team has denied this and denied that, and you’ve still got to find a way to get into our counters and keep moving the ball.”
The Snakes, winners of six of their past seven games coming into the night, were simply shell-shocked by American stars Cotton and Casey Prather (22 points), who was near unstoppable in the pick-and-roll.
Cairns fought gallantly throughout the night, but the group’s entire performance was exemplified in star centre Nathan Jawai’s frustrating throughout the night.
Lapses in concentration and overall frustration cruelled the home side, as a switched-on ‘Cats put forward their best game of the season. Trice led the Snakes with 15 points.
The ‘Cats sprung out of the blocks with a 31-21 first term on the back of a jumpshooting spree from Prather and Cotton.
The dynamic duo, and undoubtedly the keys to an eighth Wildcats championship, netted a combined 21 points in the first frame alone with deep jumpers – three whistled for contact – while the Snakes got theirs from backup centre Nnanna Egwu.
Egwu has quietly been a revelation in recent games with Bamaga banger Jawai finding foul trouble, and continued his hot streak with seven first-quarter points as Jawai sat with two fouls 3:43 into the first half and didn’t return.
After a 15-foul first quarter, the screws tightened further in the second as neither team took a backward step physically.
The combination of stoppages of play and Cotton’s shot-making (21 first-half points) dominated proceedings.
Cairns pegged it back to four points before Cotton spearheaded a 13-6 run to end the half at 48-37.
Cotton, in tandem with Prather, came out of the main break looking to stomp on the Snakes early, and the margin hit 20 points before the home side started to chip away.
The Snakes got the margin back to seven on the back of a 13-0 run, but Cotton steadied the defending champions’ ship as the ‘Cats took a comfortable 1-0 lead heading into Game 2 at Perth Arena on Monday.
PERTH WILDCATS 91 (Cotton 34, Prather 22, Knight 14)
CAIRNS TAIPANS 69 (Trice 15, Worthington 11, Egwu 9)