South East Melbourne Phoenix continue to find ways to win with their season on the line after defeating Cairns Taipans 85-80 to record their third victory on the trot and maintain their place inside the NBL’s top six.
A run of 13 unanswered points in the fourth quarter of Wednesday night’s crucial clash at Melbourne’s State Basketball Centre saw the Phoenix grind out their 15th win of the season and inch closer towards securing a place in the league’s inaugural Play-In Tournament.
South East Melbourne fought back from a 10-point deficit in the opening quarter to edge ahead 44-43 at half-time and appeared to snatch control of the game with a flying start to the third quarter, but the visitors fought back to set up a thrilling finish.
Cairns held a three-point lead midway through the final period but a combination of careless ballhandling and desperate Phoenix defence resulted in six Taipans turnovers in a horror two-minute stretch as the home side built a decisive 81-71 advantage.
Mitch Creek paced the Phoenix with 21 points, Allan Williams added 17 points and 13 rebounds, while Trey Kell III earned the praise of coach Simon Mitchell after stepping up in the absence of injured swingman Ryan Broekhoff with a 17-point haul.
“It was really important for him to hunt his offence a little bit more and that’s the one thing (Broekhoff) has been doing wonderfully well the last probably five games,” Mitchell said about the American-born forward’s impact on the game.
“He has found ways to become a scorer instead of a shooter and hunting ways to get on the basket.”
The result sees South East Melbourne (15-12) move into fifth spot ahead of Perth (13-11) and Melbourne United (14-12) with the opportunity to lock in a Play-In berth with a victory over ladder-leaders Sydney on Sunday.
Cairns took advantage of early foul trouble for Williams as they skipped out to a 24-14 lead, DJ Hogg sparking the Taipans on his way to 10 first-quarter points while Ben Ayre’s disruptive defence caused frustrations for the home side.
But South East Melbourne prevented Cairns from scoring in the final two minutes of the opening term to trim the margin to five points and Gary Browne added seven points early in the second quarter to help the Phoenix grab their first lead of the game.
The Taipans recovered from a 10-point hole in the third quarter but lost star big man Keanu Pinder to a nasty eye injury before unravelling at a vital stage of the final stanza.
While Cairns (16-9) remain in second spot on the ladder, the defeat opens the door for New Zealand (14-10) to challenge for the guaranteed semi-final place alongside the defending champion Kings.