The southern land of gold is shining bright tonight after the Fluid Recruitment Otago Nuggets made history, winning the 2020 Sal’s NBL Showdown over the Property Brokers See Me Media Manawatu Jets.
In the 56th game of this six-week competition, the Nuggets survived the strafing Jets by scraping and scrapping their way to victory.
The Nuggets were strong favourites to take this title, having defeated the Jets all four previous occasions in the Showdown. This fifth battle made it a clean stretch for Otago, but it was far from a waltz.
The Trusts Arena’s near-capacity crowd of travelling hoops fans from the Manawatu soundtracked the opening play with an exploding cheer after Taane Samuel tipped to Hyrum Harris, he then threatened the hoop's foundations with a thunderous dunk.
Tall Blacks point guard Jarrod Kenny ran the Nuggets for the full quarter, working off Josh Aitcheson who bragged the opening quarter’s top score with a duo of threes. Yet the Nuggets allowed the Jets to stay close with nine turnovers.
Tall Blacks’ longlist incumbents were evenly matched on both sides, with the Jets Jayden Bezzant and Taane Samuel, against Jordan Hunt and Kane Keil for the Nuggets. All fervently stepped up, each raising their hand for MVP.
Eventually, it was the Nuggets Jordan Hunt who took the honours. The Hutt Valley High old boy, who has yet to visit Dunedin, was the glue to this season’s tried and tested victors.
Taane Samuel displayed moments of brilliance, reminding basketball lifers of a young Peter Pokai. Alongside the strength and agility of Hyrum Harris, and Season MVP Tom Vodanovich, the Jets were up at the first quarter, 17 – 15.
The Jets continued to lead throughout the second quarter thanks to the gritty Nelson Kirksey, shooting 71%. He was one of three high scorers at the half, keeping the Jets ahead 41-37.
It was only terrier tenacity that kept the Nuggets within reach, despite their number one draft pick Jordan Ngatai only playing eight minutes in the first half. He was benched by Coach Brent Matehaere after picking up two fouls early.
The Nuggets further complicated their cause with 14 turnovers for the half. Luckily, Grand Final MVP Jordan Hunt was class under pressure and frequently relied on with 5/6 inside the arc.
The Nuggets came to play in the third with an opening 10 – 0 run, leading 47-41. Ngatai nicked his first points three minutes into the third quarter. Yet, the number one pick struggled to find his rhythm, getting called for a third foul in a sprint.
Coach Matehaere called his Captain back to the bench, but Ngatai wasn’t having it, pleading his case for a quick return. With pressure on and the fourth nearing, Kenny stepped up by floating a two, pulling it back to a three-point margin for the Jets at the close of the third.
That play seemed to be the spark the Nuggets needed. After three quarters of frustration for Ngatai, he opened the fourth with a basket, followed by a three each for Josh Aitcheson and Keil. Then Jordan Hunt chimed in, the two-metre tall centre stunned Jets’ fans with a three from deep. Suddenly the Nuggets had the biggest lead of the game with seven.
The Jets Vodanovich and Harris executed pressure plays to keep it within three, with three minutes to play. The green fans screamed their support with every bucket, but it was Ngatai who raised doubt into the minds of Jets' fans in the final moments.
His struggling game turned to success with two big dunks in the final two minutes. Then, with 24 seconds left in the game, he unleashed the block of the game, cementing the Nuggets' victory and their rightful place in the record books.
This heart-stopping game was the perfect conclusion to this sporting theatre that has captured the hearts and minds of the New Zealand public.
From the unique player draft to the 10 games per week, it has thrust basketball back onto Kiwi screens, especially in the regions of the Taranaki, Tasman, Canterbury, Counties, Auckland, and of course Manawatu and Otago.
A special mention must go to Tall Blacks and NBL legend, Jarrod Kenny. After 18 seasons in the League, it’s taken his 19th to secure a Championship. And what a way to do it.
Dunedin has especially embraced this team. Despite every game being played in the far north, bars and loungerooms in the deep south have supported the blue and gold without fail.
The Nuggets have said they will be travelling south to celebrate with locals, taking the trophy and MVP Hunt to the city for the very first time.
Final word goes to Nuggets Coach Brent Matehaere. A former Nugget himself, who has been waiting for his teams return to the NBL since 2014, is already looking to the future of this nostalgic tournament. “Otago Nuggets are rising, from 2020 to 2021, let’s go!”