Phoenix triumph in thriller rematch to secure maiden franchise victory

THE South East Melbourne Phoenix infiltrated the ‘Jungle’ and secured their first franchise win against the Perth Wildcats winning a one-point thriller, 90-89. It was the second consecutive matchup for both teams as the Phoenix squared the ledger up after some ill-discipline on the glass and with possession cost them on Sunday. Given Adam Gibson was a late out with a calf injury, the endurance of South East Melbourne was going to be tested, despite coach Simon Mitchell asserting before the game that fatigue was not a factor in the recent loss.

Early proceedings saw an efficient start for both sides, with the free-flowing nature and scoring trends setting the tone for much of the game. Neither side was able to create a significant lead until the Phoenix caught fire late in the first with a 7-0 run to close out the quarter. 20 of their 23 first-quarter points came in the paint which was just six less of their total from Sunday, a clear change in approach against a Perth side missing the inside presence of Nick Kay.

Wildcats coach Trevor Gleeson was displeased with the easy looks they gave up inside and pleaded for a lift. When the Phoenix opened the second quarter up with first two baskets and pushed the lead to double digits, it threatened to blow out. Perth then did as they managed to do all game and hung in there, going on a 7-0 run of their own to keep within striking distance.

The Phoenix lead maintained as they traded baskets, but a six-point flurry capped with an and-one opportunity from development player, and starter, Luke Travers saw the scores at 42-41 at the main break. While both teams shot poorly from deep, the Phoenix could not keep Perth off the glass (10 offensive rebounds). They did however reverse their discipline with ball in hand and force the Wildcats into eight first half turnovers.

Bryce Cotton and Keifer Sykes continued their dual which was much more even this time around as they each had 11 first-half points, while Yannick Wetzell (10 points, five rebounds) was important for South East Melbourne.

The second half maintained the ebbs and flows of the first half with Boomer Mitch Creek exploding out of the break to score the first seven points including slashing finishes with both hands and a three before Gleeson decided he had seen enough. As much as the momentum was stacked against the Wildcats, they showed why they are the reigning champions and came back with a nine-point run of their own.

While Perth managed to tie the game up during the third, South East Melbourne held a marginal 71-67 lead heading into the last break. As see-sawing and exciting as the game had been until then, the theatre was only just beginning as the fourth quarter rolled around.

Mitchell was called for a technical foul early in the term as Perth took the lead for the first time since the early stages of the game. With Sykes on the bench with foul trouble and a rolled ankle forcing Creek to re-strap himself, the Phoenix were without their two stars with five minutes left. Ben Moore stepped up with some big plays at both ends and a big Wetzell slam was important.

Sykes checked back into the game and stripped Cotton in the one-on-one situation and finished with the layup. Cotton responded with a huge four-point play, before Kyle Adnam drained a three to keep them within one. A Sykes floater from the block gave them the lead with 4.8 seconds left, and it was up to the Wildcats. 349-gamer Jesse Wagstaff had a golden opportunity to win the game receiving a pass and with adequate social distancing from the Phoenix defence, the equal fourth-highest capped Wildcats player missed from under the basket.

The win puts the Phoenix at 2-2 with Creek (24 points, seven rebounds, three steals) and Sykes (19 points, eight assists, three steals) their top performers. After losing the battle with Cotton on Sunday, Sykes said he is “just as good as all the players in the league”.

“Offensively I still need to get it going, get my timing right, but I’m definitely working on finding my guys and getting these guys scoring because I know for me it’ll come along,” he said.

The two-time MVP in Cotton stood out for Perth with 32 points and six assists, while John Mooney had 19 points and 13 rebounds.

Both teams play next on January 31 with the Phoenix taking on cross-two rivals Melbourne United, and Perth taking the New Zealand Breakers.

Picture credit: via SBS

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