The 2021 NBL fixture hasn’t been easy on the Illawarra Hawks, who looked exhausted when trying to combat a Melbourne United juggernaut who were at their sparkling best on Sunday.
The 87-76 loss at John Cain Arena demonstrated the deficiencies that the Hawks have shown throughout the NBL season, but a spirited second half comeback showed their grit and provided optimism for a stretch of home games on the horizon.
Coach Brian Goorjian was weary but positive post-game, expressing his relief that a tough double weekend of games against the high-flying Perth Wildcats and Melbourne United was completed.
“We would’ve liked to have come away from the weekend with a one-one split, but we knew it was going to be a tough one,” Goorjian said.
“We had no quit in us. They (Melbourne United) had us by 18 and 16 points at times, but we cut it to 11.
“We just couldn’t get the stops we needed down the stretch – we turned it over at crunch times.”
Despite two consecutive losses within the space of 24 hours, Goorjian was instead intent on focusing the spotlight on some solid performances.
The Hawks coach praised his rotation of players who fought out the weekend, crediting the young Deng Deng for his hard work and perseverance against quality sides.
“I couldn’t be prouder of him (Deng) – there’s a lot more in him and more growth there to come,” Goorjian said.
“I think he could be somebody special.”
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When asked about his recent good form, Deng was humble, instead preferring to look ahead in the NBL fixture.
“I wasn’t expecting anything special, I’m just glad the work is finally showing off,” Deng said.
“I credit it all to coach (Goorjian) – he gave me confidence to play hard.”
The Hawks will move on quickly from the United loss, where their big men were out-rebounded and their defence was exploited often in a wild first half of rapid scoring. A dogged defensive effort in the second half, where the Hawks forced turnovers often and won the half 34-31, will be the perfect tonic as Illawarra freshen up.
Currently on the cusp of play-off contention, Goorjian is hopeful his side can refresh mentally and apply themselves on the run to the play-offs.
“If there’s an issue with us making the play-offs, it’s that we have to get better defensively,” Goorjian admitted.
“We need to be tougher on defence and make sure we don’t turn the ball over as often on transition.”
“We’re in a good place mentally – we get to rest up. We’re in with a chance (to make the play-offs) – if we win the next few games then we go to the play-offs.”
The Hawks now get an easier run to finish the NBL regular season, as a spate of home games gives Illawarra the perfect chance to build a run of wins and secure a spot in the play-offs. Despite Sunday’s result, their grit proves they may be worthy of challenging the league’s powerhouse teams.