The New Zealand Breakers extended the Townsville Crocodiles’ winless start to the season, winning a thrilling 73-71 encounter at the North Shore Events Centre on Friday.
Cedric Jackson scored the game-winning basket off a driving lay-up with three seconds to play after scoring just three points up until that point.
The defending champions looked to have the game wrapped with an 11-point lead with just over two minutes remaining, before eight brilliant points from Townsville's Gary Ervin (21 points) tied the game at 71.
Ervin led all scorers while teammate Todd Blanchfield chipped in with 16.
Mika Vukona was the star for the home side with a 15-point, 15-rebound effort. He was ably supported by Tom Abercrombie who also scored 15.
“Vukona’s a hell of a player,” said Townsville coach Paul Woolpert after the game.
“He was the difference between these two teams tonight and I think every coach in this league would love a Mika Vukona in their team."
Breakers coach Andrej Lemanis said Vukona played "an amazing game".
“Mika’s contribution was sensational that’s as good as I’ve seen him play in my time here,” he said.
These teams last met in last season’s semi-final decider, a game that ended in controversy when Abercrombie was injured late in the game after a hard foul by Peter Crawford.
However there were no signs of hostility early as the Breakers got the better start, taking an 11-7 lead in the opening minutes.
Townsville came roaring back with a 7-0 burst as Ervin took a starring role, and they stretched their lead to 10 points early in the second term before a technical foul on the Crocs import brought the home crowd into the game.
The Breakers reduced the deficit to two before seven consecutive points from Blanchfield ignited a 10-0 Crocs streak.
Veteran Breaker CJ Bruton then steadied the ship with six points of his own to bring the home side within 47-45 at the half.
The Breakers regained the lead early in the third quarter thanks to some aggressive play from Vukona as the game turned into an arm-wrestle.
A Bruton trey gave the Breakers some breathing space and they led 60-56 heading into the final spell.
But just when New Zealand looked home Ervin weaved his magic and forced Jackson to produce something special of his own.
Woolpert admitted he was unhappy with a number of crucial tight calls at the death.
“Very disappointed with the way the last 9.5 seconds unravelled,” he said.
“But it is what it is and you have to make your own breaks.”
Lemanis refused to get too worried by his side’s shooting slump, adamant it would turn around as they seasons progresses.
“We shot at 37 per cent tonight and found a way to win, which in a way is good,” he said when summing up the offensive performance.
“It means our defence was solid and our hustle was good.”
New Zealand Breakers 73 (Abercrombie 15, Vukona 15)
Townsville Crocodiles 71 (Ervin 21, Blanchfield 16)
Crowd: 3749 at North Shore Events Centre, Auckland