Illawarra Hawks have clinched second spot and home advantage in the NBL semi-finals against fierce rivals Sydney Kings after holding on for an 87-84 away victory in their final-round clash.
Both teams finished the regular season at 19-9 but Illawarra rose to second spot on percentage and will now potentially host two games in their best-of-three series.
Sparked by 15 first-quarter points from Justinian Jessup, Illawarra led for the vast majority of Sunday’s match at Qudos Bank Arena and were 18 up in the second quarter.
Sydney gradually clawed their way back as their defence lifted and Illawarra’s shooting cooled.
Trailing by 10 at halftime and two at the last break, Sydney briefly hit the front with just under seven minutes left before the Hawks went on a 7-0 run.
The Kings had two late chances from three-point range but Ian Clark stepped on the sideline when making his shot and Dejan Vasilijevic was off target with his last-second heave.
Former Golden State NBA champion Clark had a horrid shooting night, making just three of 16, as Sydney suffered a third loss in four games against the Hawks this season.
Illawarra, who have won eight of their last nine games, host game one in Wollongong on Friday, whereas a loss on Sunday would have meant starting the series in Sydney two days earlier.
“Thirty-something hours between playing in Perth and coming here and playing a game like that and fronting up on Wednesday in front of 20,000 people, no thanks,” Hawks coach Brian Goorjian said.
“Thursday, Friday, those two (extra) days and getting this by a whisker and getting second is huge for our chances.”
With star guard Jaylen Adams missing Sydney’s last two games and a number of his other players carrying knocks, Kings’ coach Chase Buford was also happy the semi-final series was starting on Friday.
“Probably the ideal result for us to give Jaylen and Jarell (Martin) and everybody else a few more days to rest,” Buford said.
“We came back from 18 down and we kept fighting and we really stagnated them with our defence in the second half and if that game keeps going I think we win, but it’s only 40 minutes.
“Letting them get 56 (points) in the first half was obviously way more than we wanted, to hold them to 31 in the second, we changed up some things and I think it bothered them a little bit and it was good to see the guys keep fighting.”
Sydney were sparked by tireless forward Xavier Cooks who supplied 20 points and 14 rebounds.
Antonius Cleveland scored 18 and Tyler Harvey 15 for Illawarra, while at one stage in the first quarter, Jessup, who finished with 24, had 15 points, three more than the entire Sydney team.
“You’ve seen it over the last few weeks there’s a tenacity to (Jessup) as ‘I’m going to go out firing, make or miss’ and that opens up everything for everybody else,” Goorjian said.
Players of both sides exchanged seemingly unfriendly words after the game finished.
“Our teams don’t like each other, there’s no love lost on the court and they competed their butts off both ways,” Buford said.