With the fire brought to the first two seasons of the Throwdown in the NBL, it was no surprise the first Melbourne United and South East Melbourne Phoenix finals series would come down to the wire.
Despite trailing by as much as 17 in the decisive third game after collapsing in game two, United proved their worth in the second half, rallying to clinch a remarkable 10-point series-winning victory.
“Sustained success is pretty difficult,” United coach Dean Vickerman said post-match.
“Tonight it looked pretty difficult when we were down by 17.”
In a wild three-game series that had plenty of momentum shifts, Jock Landale and his United side looked the goods in game one, pouring on the offensive pressure to slide away to a comfortable 18-point win.
Landale and bench guard Scott Hopson were electric in game one, both chalking up over 20 points to lead a side that shot a remarkable 46 per cent from beyond the arc.
But an 11-24 final term in favour of the Phoenix set the tone for game two just a couple of nights later, where South East Melbourne came out aggressive in front of a quiet Sydney Arena to lead early.
In a much more even effort, Mitch Creek attacked the paint incessantly, scoring 26 points from his intense 37 minutes on court. With the ever-dangerous Keifer Sykes (26 points) and Yanni Wetzell (20) resurging from a poor game one effort, the Phoenix suddenly looked like a massive contender in the three-game series.
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The big story out of game two’s series-tying win was Wetzell’s effort against Landale. Unlucky to be snubbed for the NBL MVP shortlist, Landale went from hero to zero within the space of two nights, as Wetzell targeted Landale from the get-go and drew fouls. By the time the final quarter swung around, Landale was fouled out and United was left toothless on both sides of the court, losing the rebound battle by 9 without their premier big man.
It meant all paths led to last night, where United was expected to prove why they dominated the regular season and sit as the title favourites.
With the Perth Wildcats already booking a grand final spot off the back of a tight game three win against the Hawks, United had all of the pressure on them, and it showed.
A horrible first quarter opened the door wide open for the Phoenix, who continued their good form from game two and shot out to a 10-point lead at the first break.
With the lead extending out to 17 midway through the first half, the Phoenix sat only a few good minutes away from demolishing United and booking an unlikely grand final date with the Wildcats. Just as it looked like the title favourites would crack, Landale and his cohort of reliable players stepped up.
“It was playoffs basketball, it was really good competition, there was good physicality about the game,” Vickerman said.
Just like in game one, the key to their resurgence came with strong pressure on the defensive side of the court.
Sykes and Creek were dominant throughout most of the first half, making tough shots and constantly attacking the paint with success to push United back on their feet.
But when Mitch McCarron and Landale lifted the intensity defensively, turnovers soon came thick and fast from the inexperienced Phoenix.
“Jock in that second quarter when we were down heavy, he kept us alive, he got us through,” Vickerman said.
“I think we then found our rhythm defensively in the second half.”
Reuben Te Rangi was the shining light for the visitors in the second half, consistently shooting the lights out from beyond the arc to finish with 22 clutch points. But Te Rangi alone couldn’t quell the United tide, as Landale inflicted all types of revenge on Wetzell for game two’s events, eventually dropping 27 points (including 11 from 12 field goal attempts) and amassing eight rebounds.
With McCarron also controlling the floor from the point (eight rebounds, six assists and 11 points) with such an even game, United suddenly looked composed and efficient offensively.
In a tight finish, United held firm, as captain Chris Goulding came good after a wayward shooting night to sink some clutch buckets down the stretch. With the likes of Hopson and Yudai Baba contributing brilliantly, Jo Lual-Acuil also elevated his stocks, as David Barlow’s experience came to the fore alongside Landale’s presence.
The moment came with under a minute left. Out by 7 points, another strong defensive stop saw the ball trickle to Baba, who steadied from long range and buried a three.
It sealed a magnificent series, and one of the grittiest game three finals wins the NBL has ever seen. If United can steady and produce such even performances against Perth, then we’re in for a cracking grand final series.
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