By Paulo Kennedy, Pagemasters
The Melbourne Tigers defeated the Townsville Crocodiles 78-70 at Hisense Arena on Sunday in the final game of the NBL regular season.
The Tigers set up their win with a dashing 28-10 opening quarter, then withstood a defence-inspired charge from the Crocs before holding their nerve down the stretch to the delight of their enthusiastic fans.
Bennie Lewis (17 points) was unstoppable early in the game, while Adam Ballinger (16 points, 7 rebounds) seemed to have an answer to every Crocs charge.
With Chris Goulding, Jonny Flynn and Lucas Walker missing with injury it was a superb effort from the Tigers to prevail backing up from Friday night’s thriller in Cairns.
“We wanted to win and we expected to win no matter what anyone else said,” Tigers coach Chris Anstey said.
“I think this weekend was our best weekend, not because it was the best standard of play, but because of how we stuck together when things got tough.”
For Townsville, Melburnian Ben Allen (13 points) put on a show for his family, while speedy teenager Mitch Norton (9 points) showed the Crocs’ offence will be in good hands in the future.
But the current reality for Townsville and coach Paul Woolpert is their team missed the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
“This was a very difficult season, but I think we showed a lot of character to come back from 0-10 to go 10-8 in the final 18 games. To go into the final weekend with a chance to make the playoffs says a lot about this team,” he said.
“Tonight’s game was a microcosm of our season. We started about as badly as you can, then we came back and showed some character, but we failed at the end.”
Melbourne made a statement early with Matt Burston (10 points, 10 rebounds) on top in his match-up with Luke Nevill and Lewis dynamic from the perimeter.
A Nate Tomlinson (11 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists) triple gave the Tigers a 7-2 edge, and when Lewis nailed a three-pointer in transition the margin was 12.
Another Lewis long bomb extended the lead to 18 at the first break, but the Crocs found some defensive starch in the second quarter to force Melbourne out of their rhythm.
At the other end Norton, Allen and Todd Blanchfield all stepped up as Townsville closed to within 38-29 at half-time.
The Crocs continued to suffocate Melbourne in the third term, and when Allen hit back-to-back triples the margin was down to one.
Norton then put the visitors in front, but Ballinger and Lewis responded to give Melbourne a 50-48 lead with 10 minutes to play.
The game went up a notch in the final term with Tomlinson, Peter Crawford, Seth Scott and Gary Ervin hitting big triples, but when it came to the crunch it was Melbourne who made the key plays.
Liam Rush finished the game with an emphatic dunk to secure the Tigers' 12th win of the season, meaning they miss the playoffs by two points in their head-to-head match-up with the Sydney Kings.
“We spoke all year about small moments making a big difference, and that’s exactly how this season turned out,” Anstey rued.
Melbourne Tigers 78 (Lewis 17, Ballinger 16, Rush 15)
Townsville Crocodiles 70 (Allen 13)
Crowd: 5209 at Hisense Arena, Melbourne