Just when they had been all but written off, the Perth Wildcats kept their finals hopes alive with a courageous 95-87 upset of the Illawarra Hawks at WIN Entertainment Centre on Saturday night.
The Wildcats were in last place heading into the Round 13 New Year’s Eve clash and the win over the Hawks will boost their confidence ahead of captain Damian Martin’s imminent return from a long injury layoff.
Illawarra were perfectly placed when they led by seven with six minutes remaining but failed to go on with the job – not for the first time this season.
The Hawks lost their way in crunch time, finishing the game with a season-high 23 turnovers as Perth ripped away the season series in the dying stages.
Casey Prather brushed off a slow start to rack up 19 points for Perth and Jesse Wagstaff added 20 off the bench.
Oscar Forman led the Hawks with an uber-efficient 20 points, and Rotnei Clarke had 17.
“That was a big-time backs-to-the-wall win,” Perth coach Trevor Gleeson said post-game.
“Down seven in the fourth quarter, we could’ve rolled over, but the fight was there and it was one of our best wins of the season.
“That made it 2-2 in the series and we’ve got the points margin split on them, which could be a big deciding factor down the stretch.
“We’re hopeful of having Damo [Martin] back by mid-January. His recovery’s going great and he’s doing a lot of extra work, so fingers crossed.”
The Wildcats came out aggressively and had four players on the scoresheet inside four minutes – surprisingly not one of them named Prather.
They bolted to a 7-0 lead and it wasn’t until guard Kevin White drained back-to-back threes that the Hawks clicked into gear.
Illawarra chipped away and took their first lead at 21-20 on Forman’s triple with two minutes left in the period.
Forman nailed two more from long range, but Wagstaff and Angus Brandt’s collective 10 points off the bench helped the Cats to a 26-24 quarter-time lead.
Ball security was an issue for both teams with a collective 14 turnovers in the first period.
Perth were happy to play run-and-gun basketball with the Hawks, as the mercurial Prather hit the ‘go’ button and found his groove.
The Cats kept their noses in front for most of the second period and took a well-deserved 50-47 lead into half-time.
Wagstaff and Prather combined for 21 points and four steals, while Forman led Illawarra with 12 points on 4/4 threes.
Illawarra’s 61 per cent shooting clip in the first half took some of the glare off their horrible execution at times (14 turnovers).
The Cats made 56 per cent from the field and had nine turnovers.
The third quarter mirrored the previous two in terms of closeness and neither team could impose its will on the other.
Illawarra had their biggest lead when Clarke’s three made it 64-58, but the Wildcats responded with nine unanswered points.
Prather upped his tally to 17, while Forman also finished the third period with 17.
Cody Ellis made two free throws before Perth assistant coach Matt Nielsen’s technical foul in the last second allowed the Hawks to take a 72-69 lead into the fourth quarter.
Despite pushing the margin up to seven, the Hawks fell apart when the heat was on, and allowed the Cats to square their season series at two games apiece.
“I just heard people blaming the referees for the loss but they had nothing to do with it and everything to do with us coughing it up 23 times,” Illawarra coach Rob Beveridge said.
“I’m really upset about it because I told the guys that Perth would be desperate and hungry, and the attitude was like, ‘oh we’ve got this’. Some of our guys are so flippant sometimes, it’s ridiculous.
“We’ve worked so hard over the past month to dig ourselves out of the hole we were in and it’s disappointing when we play like we did tonight.
“I just hope this is a great learning curve for us.”
Illawarra meet Adelaide on the road next Thursday before returning home to host Melbourne United on Saturday.
The Wildcats also have two round 14 games, meeting the Kings in Sydney on Saturday and the Bullets in Brisbane on Monday.
PERTH WILDCATS 95 (Wagstaff 20, Prather 19, McKay 16)
ILLAWARRA HAWKS 87 (Forman 20, Clarke 17, White 9)