Giants do it the hard way
Story by: - Photo by: Evan Barnes / Shuttersport
When your back is against the wall, you can come out swinging, or you can fumble around for the secret passage that gets you the hell out of there.
The Fico Finance Nelson Giants chose the former option on Friday night, handing the Bay Hawks just their second loss of the national basketball league season with a 90-86 final score in the Trafalgar Centre.
After having their nose bloodied in overtime against Otago six days earlier, the Giants had few options building towards last night's match. They had to beat the runaway Bartercard NBL leaders or concede that the playoffs probably were not going to include them this year.
"We knew we couldn't hang our heads after last week," said American forward Mike Harrison, who played multiple roles in the last two minutes of the game.
"There wasn't the time to get down on ourselves, we had to get on with it and win tonight. I'm not surprised we won, not surprised at all."
There were a few surprises though: Like Hawke's Bay wearing – or in Ben Hill's case, almost wearing – last year's Giants strip after their own uniforms went to a different airport. Like Pete Campbell starting on the bench for Nelson as Darryl Jones got the call to open the game. Like the occasionally anaemic Nelson offence rattling up 30 points in the first quarter, shooting 65 per cent and making five threes.
Not that the Hawks were laying down and surrendering. They had 23 by the first break, at 67 per cent, but had been badly out-rebounded by a markedly more aggressive home team.
Jones, who went on to play 29 minutes in a strong comeback to form, said there were few options open to the Giants.
"The Hawks are a team that loves to take you on, they have Galen [Young], Kareem [Johnson], even Paora [Winitana] is aggressive. If you show a weakness, they'll bully you, so we had to meet them head-on," he said.
That they did.
With Phill Jones, another Giant back to his best, and Josh Bloxham penetrating and shooting well, the Giants led 58-44 at halftime and pushed that out to the biggest lead of the match when Campbell made a three-pointer for a 68-50 bump.
But the Hawks ramped up the defence and had the lead back in single figures near the end of the third, Harrison fouling Morgan Natanahira as time ran out to end the quarter, the free throws giving the visitors a running start in the final period.
A hard foul by Young on Nelson centre Gareth Dawson saw both teams butting heads. Young and Phill Jones were each slapped with an unsportsmanlike foul after players, coaches and two of the referees debated the issue for a full five minutes.
That disruption and a series of empty possessions threatened to derail the Giants, but Phill Jones scored off a neat feed from Campbell then cut hard behind his defender for a layup to get the home side going, and Darryl Jones gathered an offensive rebound before driving for two points to send the Giants six clear.
Natanahira responded though, scoring twice in a game in which he contributed 14 points without missing a shot, and when Harrison flubbed four straight free throws, the Hawks had tied it at 86 with one minute to play.
Harrison, a 54 per cent free throw shooter this season, was subjected to the domestic version of the "Hack-a-Shaq" tactics from the NBA a decade ago when Shaquille O'Neal was brutalised on most possessions to force him to the line, rather than giving up a dunk. Maybe the Hawks called it "Strike-a-Mike"?
After making just one free throw in seven attempts, Harrison put his hand up post-game.
"Everybody is held accountable and I missed free throws in a key situation," he said. "I'm glad we still got the win because my shooting put us under pressure."
However Phill Jones, who absorbs pressure like white bread absorbs gravy, made a contorted scoop shot to get Nelson's nose back in front and Campbell completed the job at the line after he rebounded Winitana's late three-point miss and was fouled.
"We showed stretches of really good basketball tonight," said Harrison, who redeemed himself by swatting a shot from Winitana on the last play. "This was the measuring stick, the top team in the league with only one loss and we played hard and won with contributions from top to bottom.
"We get to add Mika [Vukona] now for our last three home games but we showed we can beat anyone with this group we have right here."
Darryl Jones, whose bald statistics of eight points and four rebounds barely reflected his impact on the game, was a relieved Giant.
"I'm sick of not playing, being a hostage to injuries," he said.
"I had a simple job tonight, to go out there and bring some intensity, but I thought we got that across the whole team.
"It's nice to look up there and see a win on the board and know that we really earned this one."