Tuatara shoot down Saints

IN a remarkable Final 6 clash, Auckland Tuatara have eliminated reigning champion Wellington Saints from the New Zealand National Basketball League (NZNBL) title race. After starting the season so poorly, the Saints had seemingly found their groove the past month, winning the last six games of the season, five of them coming against four of the other Final 6 competitors. The Tuatara had other ideas through, starting strong and holding firm across three quarters, then holding on against a fast-finishing Saints outfit to record a five-point victory, 92-87.

WELLINGTON SAINTS 17 | 21 | 20 | 29 (87)
AUCKLAND TUATARA 25 | 25 | 20 | 22 (92)

After a horrific start to the 2022 NZNBL season, the ominous signs of Wellington Saints were showing coming into the match, having won six on the trot, five against fellow Final 6 competitors. Just four days earlier, the Saints had dominated their first Final 6 opponent, Auckland Tuatara by 18 points. The Saints, despite being in the precarious position of having to play the extra match after only finishing third, were, for intensive purposes, considered favourites for the title. But then the Tuatara awoke and ripped up the script.

At the start of the season, the Tuatara were dominating and the early benchmarks for the NZNBL title. That was off the back of work from Robert Loe and import Chris Johnson who were regularly picking up double-doubles. Aided by the slick shooting of back court talent of Siler Schneider, long-range shooting of Takiula Fahrensohn and pinpoint passing from Braydon Iuli, the Tuatara had a well-balanced starting five.

The Saints on the other hand, had a complete star-studded side that had incredible experience across the globe and at international level. Headlined by star Australian NBL bigman Xavier Cooks and his partner-in-crime Tom Vodanovich, the Saints had the likes of imports Reginald Upshaw Jr and Michael Smith, as well as the shooting prowess of Taane Samuel and all-round game of Jordan Ngatai. There was a reason the Saints were favourites, but they could not seem to get it going as they fell eight points down at the first break.

Fahrensohn was terrific in the opening term for his side as he drained 11 of his team’s 25 points in the quarter, as the Tuatara closed down the Saints’ ability to pile on the three-pointers. Loe was cooking in the second term, and he and Fahrensohn were helping build a handy 12-point buffer at the main break, combining for 32 points and Loe and Johnson were dominating the rebounds. Unsurprisingly, Cooks was also getting it done for the home side, picking up 16 first half points.

That 12-point lead extended out to 18 early in the third, but the Saints were not just about to pack up. They kept in touch with the Tuatara throughout the 10 minutes to ensure they were not going to drift away. The work of Vodanovich and Upshaw Jr was proving key in doing just that, but Loe and Fahrensohn kept steadying the ship. A late pull up jumper to Smith in the final minute reduced the deficit back to that 12 points with 10 minutes to play.

Then the Wellington Saints piled on the pressure, scoring 10 of the first 12 points – including two triples from Upshaw Jr – as the favourites looked like storming home. That deficit trimmed to four as Smith continued on his merry way, answering Johnson’s fadeaway jumper, and when the former gained the And One chance, he made no mistake. Smith and Cooks – who scored a moment later – had levelled the scores at 75 points apiece with six minutes on the clock.

A Johnson triple relieved some tension, but the Saints fired away, hitting the front with just over four minutes down after Vodanovich made both free throws. Fahrensohn – who had been a high-volume standout shooter on the night – picked up the next five points to give the Tuatara some breathing space, only for Ngatai to come right back with a beautiful triple. With 2:44 on the clock, the Saints trailed 84-84. Auckland would find the next five points through Johnson and Fahrensohn, and though the lead stretched back out to six, a triple from Smith with 92 seconds on the clock cut it down to a single possession game.

Both sides had their chances in the last 90 seconds, but both sides missed. An important foul on Schneider with 13 seconds on the clock sent him to the line, and though he only scored one of two, it made it a two-possession game. A miss from the Saints up the other end, and it was gam over, with the Tuatara winning by five, 92-87 an eliminating the reigning premiers from the NZNBL title race.

Fahrensohn finished with 24 points, seven rebounds and three assists with no turnovers, and while his shooting percentage from the field – 36 per cent and just two of 14 from long-range – was not as efficient as usual, he still put up plenty pf points. He shared the top scorer mantle with Loe (24 points, 10 rebounds and two steals) who was one of three players to record double-doubles for the Tuatara. Johnson (17 points, 13 rebounds, three steals, two blocks and two assists) and Schneider (17 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists) also achieved the feat.

Cooks was a standout player for the Saints, with the NZNBL Most Valuable Player (MVP) putting in a wealth of work, shooting 11 of 18 from the field on his way to 26 points, 16 rebounds, three blocks, two assists and two steals. Upshaw Jr (20 points, seven rebounds, two assists and two steals) and Vodanovich (12 points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals) were the other key players from the starting five, as Smith chipped in with 14 points, five assists and two rebounds off the bench.

While it closes the curtain on what has been a remarkable comeback from the Wellington Saints when they looked dead and buried, their season comes to a close. For the Auckland Tuatara however, they face Taranaki Airs tonight for a spot in Saturday’s NZNBL Grand Final.

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