South East Melbourne Phoenix survived an almighty scare late in the fourth quarter to hang on for a 83-78 win over the New Zealand Breakers in Auckland.
The heart stopping finish leaves the Phoenix in the box seat for a first NBL finals appearance for the second-year franchise with a favourable percentage leaving them in prime position to advance to the postseason.
Star point guard Keifer Sykes produced 29 points, seven rebounds and five assists, dazzling the New Zealand crowd with an array of dribble moves and difficult finishes inside and out.
Phoenix head coach Simon Mitchell suspected his team felt the weight of expectations during the disappointing loss to the Brisbane Bullets on Wednesday night, though Sykes allayed any fears of a repeat performance, producing one of the best individual halves of NBL 21.
Using a screen to free himself up at the top of the perimeter, Sykes dribbled into an uncontested mid-range jumper for the game’s first basket. That initial action would be on repeat throughout the half, with Sykes cutting the New Zealand defence to ribbons, tallying 21 points, four rebounds and three assists through two quarters to give the Phoenix a 52-42 lead.
Despite controlling a double-digit lead for much of the second half, it was a frenetic finish, with the Phoenix offence grinding to a halt and Tai Webster closing the deficit to 80-76 at the free-throw line with 2:25 to play.
Marquee mid-season signing Ryan Broekhoff calmed the nerves of South East Melbourne fans, calmly knocking down two free-throws with 43.6 second to play to extend the lead to 82-76 and effectively finish the game.
South East Melbourne still has one game remaining to wrap up the regular season, with the side’s gruelling travel schedule to continue with a trip to Brisbane for a Tuesday night fixture.
The Phoenix have all but locked up a finals spot. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)Source:Getty Images
Moore effort on the glass
With their season on the line, Phoenix went to work on the glass, outhustling New Zealand to secure critical second chance opportunities. With hulking New Zealand big man Colton Iverson a dominant rebounding force all season, Phoenix often went with Ben Moore and Yannick Wetzell in the same line-up. The upsized group proved pivotal, with the Phoenix holding a 14-8 edge on the offensive glass that translated to the second chance point tally finishing a favourable 15-7.
Playoff rotation unlocked
The Phoenix weren’t messing around in this one. With the scores locked at 26 though one quarter, Mitchell started the second quarter with his starters against the second unit of the Breakers. The early momentum contributed to a 26-16 second period. The same dose was repeated in the fourth quarter, with the Phoenix leaving nothing to chance in a rotation you can expect to see more of during the playoffs. Sykes, Reuben Te Rangi and Wetzell all logged more than 30 minutes, well above season averages.
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