Otago Nuggets crowned NZNBL champions

AFTER trailing at quarter time, Otago Nuggets have stormed to a memorable grand final win over Auckland Tuatara to claim the 2022 New Zealand National Basketball League (NZNBL) title last night. Both sides had to enter the grand final the hard way having third and fifth, and after trailing as late as the final minutes of the second term, the Nuggets were able to steady and answer all the Tuatara challenges to win by eight points. American import Keith Williams putting on a dazzling 34-point performance to win Most Valuable Player (MVP) in the match and guide his side to an 81-73 triumph.

AUCKLAND TUATARA 22 | 20 | 17 | 14 (73)
OTAGO NUGGETS 17 | 26 | 21 | 17 (81)

Coming into the match, the Auckland Tuatara were coming of outstanding wins over Wellington Saints and Taranaki Airs – the latter thanks to a match-winning Robert Loe play – while Otago Nuggets had dispatched Hawke’s Bay Hawks and then Nelson Giants. Despite the Nuggets finishing third to the Tuatara’s fifth, both sides ended the regular season on 10 wins from 18 games. The teams split their matches, with the Nuggets winning their first encounter by four points, before the Tuatara easily took the Nuggets to the cleaners in the second one, scoring 105 points on their way to a 31-point victory.

Though both sides are strong three-point shooters, defence was a high priority and the match itself never got out beyond 11 points for either side. The first term was particularly a strange one, as the teams traded blows early, then the Nuggets started to mount a lead. Off the back of Williams (10 points) and Todd Withers (five), the Nuggets lead 15-9 with four and a half minutes on the clock, before the Tuatara roared to life with 13 of the last 15 points in the quarter. Siler Schneider, Takiula Fahrensohn and Loe all put up points to hold out for a five-point lead at the first break.

An early triple from Nikau McCullough cut the deficit to two points, before Braydon Iuli and Dontae Russo-Nance responded. Though the Nuggets kept closing the gap thanks to the likes of Sam Timmins and Withers, Dontae-Nance was stepping up, and adding another five points helped the Tuatara to a seven-point run and an 11-point lead with four and a half minutes left in that quarter. Luckily for the Nuggets, when they were trailing 33-41, Billy Boyd III went on a 10-point tear to hand his side back the lead. As Loe only made one of his final two free throws in the last minute, it meant the Nuggets headed into half-time with a one-point advantage.

Chris Johnson was becoming a problem in the third term, as his nine points in the first five minutes were keeping the Tuatara in it. The Nuggets kept sharing the rock around with Williams, McCullough, Timmins and Matthew Bardsley all scoring prior to he Tuatara calling a timeout. Loe and Fahrenson were subbed out for Iuli and Nick Barrow, while Jack Andrew came on for Timmins. The timeout did not seem to work for Auckland, as Otago scored nine of the next 10 points to reach their own game-high lead of 10 points with three minutes to spare in the third term. Schneider responded with a flurry late in the term, and was able to cut it back to a manageable five points with 10 minutes to play.

Fast out of the blocks, Williams scored the first three points of the last term with an And-One opportunity, and continued to be the thorn in the Tuatara’s side. Schneider and Loe were doing their best, and when it passed into the final five minutes, the Tuatara made their move. Seven straight points, almost exclusively off free throws – and the Nuggets missing four consecutive chances – made it a one-point ball game heading into the final three minutes. Then came Boyd and Williams who scored the final seven points of the match – with the Tuatara missing three-point chance after three-point chance – to help the Nuggets to a memorable eight-point win, 81-73.

Otago Nuggets had a high shooting efficiency from beyond the arc and the charity stripe which proved crucial in the end, though the Tuatara were deadly from inside the arc with a 58 per cent shooting efficiency. That helped them score a massive 44 points to 26 from the paint, while the Nuggets took advantage of the Tuatara’s turnovers to s cored 17 points to nine off them. Otago also lead the rebounds (46-40) and second chance points (11-6), while the Tuatara had the upper hand in the assists (16-13) and also marginally lead the steals and blocks.

Williams was the clear MVP of the match, pouring on a game-high 34 points – including two of five from long-range for a total of 13 of 23 from the field – and eight rebounds. Boyd (19 points, five assists, three rebounds and three steals) and Timmins (10 points, nine rebounds and two assists) both reached double-digits, while McCullough (nine points, four rebounds) scored exclusively from long-range, and Withers helped himself to nine rebounds, three blocks and two steals despite a disappointing one of seven from the field to only register the seven points.

It was an even performance from the Tuatara, with Johnson and Loe finishing the season how they started, picking up double-doubles. Johnson managed the 13 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks, shooting at an impressive 55 per cent, while Loe scored 13 points, 13 rebounds, four assists, three blocks and two steals. Schneider managed a team-high 16 points, five assists, five steals and two rebounds, while Russo-Nance (10 points, three rebounds and two assists) and Fahrensohn (10 points, five rebounds and three assists) both contributed both shot at low efficiencies.

The Otago Nuggets’ victory marked their second in three years, having also won the condensed season during COVID-19 in 2020. For the Tuatara, they came in rebranded from the Auckland Huskies and previously Southern Huskies, and were able to reach a grand final in their first official season.

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