The South East Melbourne Phoenix have defeated the Illawarra Hawks 93-76 to remain in the race for the inaugural NBL Cup.
With star point guard Keifer Sykes missing Sunday’s clash at John Cain Arena with an ankle injury, Mitch Creek poured in 25 points to help the second-year franchise keep their unbeaten record against the Hawks intact.
Strong team defence and superior ball movement helped South East Melbourne edge ahead 45-37 by halftime before a 28-18 third-quarter charge ended Illawarra’s hopes of a comeback victory.
Phoenix coach Simon Mitchell was pleased with his squad’s commitment at the defensive end with players the calibre of Sykes, Adam Gibson and Dane Pineau on the injury list.
“I was wondering to myself a little bit whether or not we had enough ammunition defensively and it turns out the guys stepped up and we did so that was great,” Mitchell said after Illawarra guards Tyler Harvey (14 points) and Justinian Jessup (7) well held below their season averages.
Ben Moore (22) and Cam Gliddon (17) provided valuable offensive support while Kyle Adnam added 11 points and a career-high 11 assists after replacing Sykes in the starting five.
The Phoenix stifled Illawarra’s dangerous shooters in the opening quarter and converted five Hawks turnovers into an additional nine points as part of a 25-13 start, leaving Hawks coach Brian Goorjian concerned about his side’s initial lack of energy.
“I thought there were some signs (of fatigue) today on some of the guys we’ve been riding their backs the last couple of games,” Goorjian said after his side fell behind by double-digits in the early stages.
“That start really got me on my heels, I wasn’t expecting that and I’m sure the group wasn’t either.”
South East Melbourne’s lead blew out to 31-15 in the second term but the Hawks lifted when Deng Deng responded with a three-pointer and Harvey added two triples in quick succession.
Illawarra’s offensive burst saw them earn an NBL Cup point for winning the second quarter but Creek’s strength around the basket and last-gasp three-pointer ensured the Phoenix held an eight-point buffer at halftime.
South East Melbourne regained the ascendancy in the third quarter as Gliddon and Moore kept the scoreboard ticking over and a Yanni Wetzell steal and dunk put the Phoenix 20 points up.
Not only does the result see the Phoenix improve to 2-2 in the NBL Cup but it consolidates their top-four place on the NBL ladder, joining the third-placed Hawks with a 6-5 record.