HOW? That was the word – and question – on everyone’s lips when with six seconds left, Robert Loe produced the play of the New Zealand National Basketball League season. For all intensive purposes, at the nine-second mark of the final term Taranaki Mountainairs were on the verge of reading Auckland Tuatara their last rites. Just seconds earlier, import Anthony Hilliard had nailed two free throws to extend the Airs’ lead out to five points. What followed over the last 14 seconds was incomprehensible, unbelievable and frankly to mainly, seemingly near-impossible.
Rushing it down the other end, youngster Dontae Russo-Nance had the chance to cut the margin to two with a three pointer, but getting it done at both ends, Hilliard pulled down the defensive board and was fouled with nine seconds remaining. The lead was five points, Hilliard had two free throws, all he had to do was put the final nail in the coffin. Then the Airs fans watched in horror as somehow he missed both. Though a little nervous, the five-point buffer would be enough, or would it?
Tuatara shooter Siler Schneider pulled down the defensive board and fired off to Loe who ran into the lane and produced a layup to cut the deficit to three points with six seconds on the clock. Still, the Airs just had to find a target off Richie Rodger‘s hand, and if they were fouled it would be game over. Instead, Rodger’s inbound pass was read perfectly by Loe who juggled it, knew that only a long-range bomb would do, took a couple of steps back and launched. Fans across the stadium watched in disbelief as Loe’s triple landed. Scores were level with a few seconds left. Hilliard received the pass and desperately tried a half-court shot with a second on the clock, but it was no dice, scores were level and the game was headed into overtime.
Though still tight, the Tuatara ground out the victory off the wave of momentum from Loe’s shot, with Russo-Nance particular influential in the 16-13 overtime period, and the Tuatara won by three, 107-104. But there was no way it could have even been possible without Loe’s heroics. But it was not just his last quarter performance, the bigman was simply unstoppable all match as he took control an d helped guide his team into the grand final, knocking out the top seed Airs in the process. Seven players recorded double-doubles, six involving points and rebounds. It was a night for the top-enders and a game that was the best of the season.
TARANAKI AIRS 27 | 21 | 22 | 21 | 13 (104)
AUCKLAND TUATARA 25 | 17 | 21 | 28 | 16 (107)
Taranaki lead for almost the entire game and had 60 rebounds in a statline that shot be a victory each and every time. Instead, that late triple from Loe – giving the Tuatara life for the first time since Auckland held a narrow lead in the first term – levelled the scores and the Tuatara took control in overtime. The sides had a ridiculous 94 and 93 shots each, with the Airs recording one more (40-39) and both nailed 12 triples. The home team had five more rebounds (60-55), four more points in the paint (52-48) and seven more second chance points (19-12), but the Tuatara punished them off turnovers (25 points to 14), as well as topping the assists (24-22) and steals (14-7) in a remarkable performance.
Loe put up 29 points, 18 rebounds and five steals, with Chris Johnson again dominant with 21 points, 16 rebounds, three assists and two blocks, while Takiula Fahrensohn continued his red-hot form with 22 points, 13 rebounds, three assists and two steals. To think that Schneider was only the fourth best player and still had 11 points and 11 rebounds for his side, speaks volumes. Russo-Nance’s 16 points, five assists and five steals off the bench was not bad either.
The Airs had their fair share of outstanding performances, with Hilliard managing the 21 points, nine rebounds, three assists and two steals, but fell short of a double-double unlike three of his teammates. Javonte Douglas (24 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists), Shaun Willett (15 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and two steals) and Marcel Jones (13 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two steals) all had enormous outings. Tai Wynyard (15 points, six rebounds and two blocks was strong as well, while Rodger contributed four triples at 100 per cent for his 12 points in 26 minutes.
Auckland Tuatara advance through to the NZNBL Grand Final to take on the winner of Nelson Giants and Otago Nuggets tomorrow, while the Taranaki Airs are left pondering what might have been.