The Cairns Taipans have put a serious dent in South East Melbourne Phoenix’s top-four aspirations after holding on in the final seconds to record a 90-85 victory at Cairns Convention Centre.
With point guard Scott Machado returning to his best after an injury-riddled season, the Taipans led for the majority of Saturday’s contest but were forced to survive a desperate surge from the visitors after they cut a 10-point deficit to three in the final minute.
But the Phoenix faltered on their final possessions, allowing Jarrod Kenny to ice the game from the free-throw line with six seconds left on the clock.
Despite averaging less than 78 points per game for the season, the Taipans scored 56 points in the first half to lead by eight at halftime and set up their third victory in the last four games.
“Even when (Phoenix) did bring it back to a two-possession game, we had a couple of times where we’d call a timeout, just sort of settle it down a little bit. Awesome, loved it,” coach Adam Forde said of his undermanned squad.
“It was the first time where I knew for myself personally, that I felt confident the group felt confident that they could close it out and it showed.”
With imports Stephen Zimmerman and Taj McCall sidelined through injury, Keanu Pinder rose to the challenge with 21 points and 12 rebounds while Machado (16 points, 12 assists) played with leadership and poise to orchestrate the upset win.
Hopes of a return trip to the NBL semi-finals are starting to wane for South East Melbourne with six losses in their last seven starts resulting in the Phoenix (12-11) falling 2.5 games behind fourth-placed Perth with five matches to play.
“We continue to get in our own way,” coach Simon Mitchell said after a poor defensive effort in the first half proved costly.
“It’s frustrating because we continue to do it and regardless of how much we work on it, how much we talk about it and how much we show it, it just keeps creeping into our play. That’s where the disappointment comes from.”
Cairns held a 29-26 edge after one quarter before Pinder and Majok Deng triggered a run of 11 straight points on the way to a 56-48 halftime lead.
Both teams struggled offensively in the third quarter but the Phoenix clawed their way back into the match with Mitch Creek and Kyle Adnam combining for 13 of their team’s 17 points to trail by four.
But the visitors could not finish the job despite the efforts of Creek (21 points) and Xavier Munford (20 points, eight rebounds).