24/04/2024

Photo: Illawarra Hawks

The Illawarra Hawks fairy-tale run has come to an end after falling to Melbourne United in the semi-final decider.

After pulsating overtime finishes in the first two series games, United jumped the Hawks early and never looked like losing, eventually prevailing 100-94.

Justin Tatum’s side produced a remarkable turnaround after being last after nine games, resulting in former coach Jacob Jackomas being sacked before Tatum’s arrival. Tatum stepped up into the role from the Assistance Coach position, developing connections on and off-court which led to the side producing their very best from that point on.

“This is my group and I’m proud of them, being able to give ourselves an opportunity like this, because our season could’ve been over February 18th,” Tatum said.

“We could’ve been home or doing whatever, but our guys kept fighting, kept playing. So that just shows us where our future is.”

Among the biggest drivers in Illawarra’s rise was big man Sam Froling. The centre again took it to his United counterparts Ariel Hukporti and Jo Lual-Acuil Jr, but not even his exploits could secure a grand final berth.

Froling said an “embarrassing” individual performance approaching the finals kicked him into gear and that their exit “sucks”.

“I think I backed off towards the back end of the season – kind of my aggression. Coming into the Tassie game I was a bit embarrassed after that performance,” Froling said.

“I knew coming into this one, I’m a big part of this team and I need to play well for us to have a chance so that was kind of the mindset going into it.”

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The fact that Illawarra were able to beat and compete with some of the best teams, has given Froling and his teammates renewed optimism for next season.

“It was a hell of a series against the best team all year, and we believe we probably could’ve beat them. We should’ve beat them.“

“I’m sure there’s a lot of stuff we’ll go back and watch, [we] probably could’ve fixed this but it’s a bit bittersweet, we believe, and we know we could’ve done it, it just sucks that we didn’t.”

Tatum was also confident in the squad he has assembled and the way he’s turned the team around.

“I inherited the team, but this is my team. I had my hand selected or knew who was going to be a part of this team as I was coming in as an assistant, so I was building that relationship there. This team was put together at the start of the year to win, we started poorly, we fixed it, and we got back to where we believe we should’ve been,” Tatum continued.

The Illawarra Hawks will look to retain the majority of their squad while adding key pieces to push for championship success next season.

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