The Wellington Saints have completed a huge weekend by taking a thrilling 84-80 win over the Canterbury Rams and maintaining a winning streak that has now extended to 15 games.
The visitors went in with star import Isaiah Wilkins sidelined with a minor injury, where he was joined by Luke Aston, but despite missing some key players the Rams were up for the challenge.
The home team started strongly and piled on 28pts over the opening 10 minutes against the league's tightest defence, while at the other end the Saints, who over the weekend stepped it up at the defensive end, let in only 18pts. As we would find out later, it proved to be the match-winning start the Saints needed.
Tom Abercrombie, who racked up a strong double-double the previous night in Hawke's Bay, took right off from the same point and dropped 8pts in the opening term, leading the Saints on a shooting barrage supported by a 63% clip.
Emmett Naar also started well with 9pts for the Rams and clearly looked excited about the prospect of coming up against the likes of Shea Ili and Sunday Dech. It was a battle we was well prepared for.
The second quarter proved to be a cracker as both teams took it up a notch, particularly the Rams as they upped the ante defensively and continually pumped the ball into Mike Karena back the other way, who started to get on top inside the paint and drop some big baskets.
Tempers boiled over at one stage as Saints coach Paul Henare received a technical foul, providing the Rams with added motivation as they closed to within 2pts late in the quarter.
The home team went in to the long break with a 48-44 lead.
The third period lived up to the billing of this game being a blockbuster, the Rams finding their mark from long range by hitting four triples in a row at one stage, helping them take the quarter 22-18 and tie the contest up at 66-66 with a quarter to play.
The final period started perfectly for the Saints with Reuben Te Rangi nailing a triple in the first play. It set the tone for a thrilling final 10 minutes.
The Rams tied the game at 70-70 with just under seven minutes to play, and it was 75-74 the way of the Saits with just over four minutes to go. To that stage the Rams still hadn't put their nose in front at any stage of the game.
Off a Mike Karena basket with 2:28 to play the Rams took the lead for the first time, 78-77. A Shea Ili put-back soon after put the Saints back up 79-78, before a lovely Emmett Naar drive to the hoop with 33-seconds to play had the Rams back up 80-79.
Out of the ensuing time-out the Saints brought back Abercrombie and the Tall Blacks champ duly responded with a mid-range jumper that rolled in. It would be the first of two Abercrombie's starring plays that would give his team the win. Advantage Saints 81-80 with 26.3 seconds to play - Rams ball.
Out of coach Mick Downer's time-out the Rams ran a slick offence with Emmett Naar finding a free Mike Karena slipping down through the key to the basket, however in one of the defensive plays of the season Abercrombie rose high and blocked the shot.
It proved to be a match-winning move that brought the house down, the crowd standing as one and applauding the defensive highlight.
The Rams fouled quickly and forced Shea Ili to the line for two, and then in a touch of near brilliance Naar nearly nailed a triple to tie the game. A miss led to a foul and put Abercrombie back to the line to finish the game off, the Saints winning 84-80.
Wellington Saints 84 defeated Canterbury Rams 80
Saints - Tom Abercrombie 22pts, Nick Kay 14pts, Shea Ili 13pts.
Rams - Mike Karena 20pts & 11rbs, Emmett Naar 16pts, Cam Gliddon 15pts, 8rbs & 7ast.
Stats That Matter - in such a close contest not much separated the two teams, but one telling factor was Wellington's 34 bench points compared with Canterbury's 20pts off the pine.
TAB MVP Votes - Tom Abercrombie (Saints) 10, Mike Karena (Rams) 7, Cam Gliddon (Rams) 6, Nick Kay (Saints) 5, Alex Talma (Rams) 1, Emmett Naar (Rams) 1.
(photo credit: Photosport NZ)