Behind Mitch Creek’s masterclass, NBL championship contenders South East Melbourne Phoenix have shaken off a late wobble to defeat the Adelaide 36ers 83-76.
Phoenix talisman Creek (29 points, seven rebounds) edged long-time former teammate Daniel Johnson (31, eight) after an absorbing, head-to-head duel at Adelaide Entertainment Centre on Friday night.
Johnson, the only Sixer to hit double-digits, was pivotal in the home side turning a 13-point third-quarter deficit into a one-point lead with 3:01 remaining.
Ex-36er Creek pinched the lead back with a slick reverse lay-up before draining his third three-pointer and dishing assists to Kyle Adnam and Brandon Ashley.
Meanwhile, Adelaide went cold in the crunch, Sunday Dech missing a three, Dusty Hannahs errant on a floater and Dech turning over a sideball inbound with 12.4 seconds left.
The Sixers’ third successive defeat was further soured when in-form big man Cam Bairstow fell ill in the second term and left the contest after playing only seven minutes.
With the 36ers’ regular head coach CJ Bruton testing positive for COVID-19, assistant Jamie Pearlman took the reins against the Phoenix – but only after chartering a flight from Sydney and arriving in Adelaide a few hours before tip-off, after attending his mother-in-law’s funeral in NSW.
“I’ll definitely know where I was and what I was doing for my first game as a head coach,” Pearlman said.
“The date won’t escape me.
“Terrific fightback, terrific effort from the guys … but our execution down the stretch is letting us down.”
Creek and Johnson went at each other from the outset, scoring 14 first-quarter points apiece as SEM led 26-25 at the first break.
Mitch McCarron started the second period with two dunks to push Adelaide ahead by five points before the Phoenix crashed the glass hard and rode an 11-0 spree to a 50-42 half-time advantage.
After sitting out the second stanza with foul issues, big Zhou Qi was active in the third as the well dried up for the Sixers and SEM pushed further clear, 65-54 at three-quarter-time.
Adelaide showed spirit in the fourth but the Phoenix, albeit unconvincingly aside from Creek, did enough to notch their third straight win and move to 11-5.
“Offensively, I’ve got no explanation for some of our decision making,” said Phoenix coach Simon Mitchell, relieved but not overjoyed.
“There are things that happened in this game that are unacceptable for us.
“We need to be better.”