13/04/2024

Illawarra Hawks are looking to go deep into the NBL24 playoffs, starting against Tasmanian Jack Jumpers. (Photo: Blair Burns)

Justin Tatum has been a miracle worker for the Illawarra Hawks since the head coach took over the reins to a side that was sitting with a 2-7 season record.

The Tatum turnaround had immediate impact as the side reversed the season record in its next nine games to go 7-2 defeating teams like Perth Wildcats, Tasmania Jack Jumpers, Sydney Kings and New Zealand Breakers throughout this period.

The Hawks will face the Tasmania Jack Jumpers in the seeding qualifier next Wednesday at MyState Bank Arena. There is nothing separating these two sides, Illawarra managed to win their last match-up by one point in double overtime at the same venue.

There is no doubt that this season or Tatum turnaround has already been a huge success but just how far can the Illawarra Hawks take this postseason?

Tatum and star player Gary Clark think the team’s work is far from done and are looking to continue the wave of momentum into the finals with the coach saying, “there’s no going back”.

“We had probably the toughest stretch of teams to play to make it to the playoffs and we knew it was going to be a grind,” Tatum said.

“We got tested towards the end (of the regular season) which is going to help us for the run.

“(We have to) stay consistent with what we started in the beginning, the guys who trusted what I’ve asked them to do when I took over in late November.”

Tatum said it was especially tough in the early days of his tenure to work out his team’s identity and how he could get the most out of each player.

“I said everybody starts with a clean sheet. Everything that we’ve done in the prior seven weeks, we just throw it out the window and let’s just rewrite our own story so we went from there,” he said.

“We’ve just got to find a way to compete 40 minutes and we’ll just have to figure out what we do on the court as we play.”

Clark spoke about the moment he and his teammates “locked in” and realised they could go all the way in NBL24.

“We took a couple tough losses that we should’ve won, and I think we all kind of came together when we’re practicing,” he said.

“(We were) like okay, we can really win this thing and like string together a couple of wins and get some respect throughout the league.

“If I were to bet, most teams wouldn’t want to play us … we’ve been just very solid defensively, offensively we’ve been just as (good).”

Clark is just one of many Hawks players to find some impressive consistency since Tatum took over as coach. It wasn’t only his average points which increased, but also his dominance across the boards at both ends of the court. After having just one double-double in the first nine matches, he put up five in the next nine.

Clark has had help from players such as Tyler Harvey who has proven he can be a prolific scorer at the level with more than 15 points per game, knocking down threes every week. Sam Froling and Justin Robinson have also contributed to the offensive output of the side.

Clark put the individual growth down to buying into the new culture and working together for team success.

“(I think it was about) guys trusting me … with this new guy import coming into an environment where the guys are trying to figure it out from last season,” he said.

“I think once JT took over and the guys kind of bought into what he wanted … me being selfless and kind of filling it out and not trying to take over.

“(That) allowed it to blossom to what it is now.

“We’ve had a tremendous turn around so we’ve been playing well and that’s all we can ask for going into the postseason, so we’ll see in the next couple weeks.”

Tatum said he admired the way Scott Roth coached the Jack Jumpers and acknowledged it would be a massive test for his group.

“Going against Tasmania is going to be a tough situation … (they have a) very experienced group, a very tough group,” he said.

“It wasn’t great the first two games but then the third game in double overtime … it was good for us to find a way to get a win.

“When we go back on Wednesday, anything can happen.”

Tatum addressed the offensive power that the Jack Jumpers bring to the court referencing the last time the sides met.

“We did a solid job on (Milton) Doyle for most of the game and then he found his way to carry them into double overtime,” he said.

“They’ve got so many weapons that we’ve got to worry about, we are just trying to be consistent on each end and make it difficult as possible for them.

“I’m just happy that the people of Wollongong have the opportunity to support their team in the playoffs and get back at it again.”

Tatum said Clark was 100 percent despite wearing a moon boot on his right foot and that it was just for “precautionary reasons”.

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