The Wollongong Hawks got their title aspirations back on Friday night at WIN Entertainment Centre, coming from behind in dramatic fashion to conquer the Perth Wildcats 78-75.
A third straight loss seemed a certainty when Wollongong trailed 47-33 three minutes into the third quarter.
But they mounted a stirring charge, outplaying the championship heavyweights in an extremely tense final period to chalk up their eighth win of the season.
Guard Lance Hurdle led the Hawks with 18 points, Rhys Martin had 16, while rookie centre Auryn MacMillan showed nerves of steel, tallying 12 points, four rebounds and three steals in the absence of injured teammate Larry Davidson.
Locked at 51-apiece with their opponents after three periods, the Hawks played all the right cards down the stretch to register their second win over the Cats and remain unbeaten on their home court.
The win also helped ease the pain of last week’s road loss to the Cats.
Kevin Lisch led Perth with 17 points, Shawn Redhage had 15 and Greg Hire finished with 13.
Somehow the Hawks managed to prevail in spite of a 43-24 rebound count in Perth’s favour.
The game started at a frenetic pace and had already featured a whopping eight lead changes at the midway point of the opening quarter.
Perth were up 14-13 after a time-out and extended the lead to 20-13 on Jesse Wagstaff’s back-to-back three-pointers.
Wollongong fought back to trail by two after Hurdle knocked down his third shot, but Everard Bartlett nailed a pair of free throws to give the Cats a 22-18 lead after one period.
Ominous signs were apparent for the Hawks under the boards, with Perth winning the rebound count 9-4.
The Cats also hit 4/7 threes compared to Wollongong’s 1/5.
Scoring dried up at both ends in the second quarter, though the visitors gradually extended the margin to eight.
Tempers flared with five minutes left in the half, leading to a technical foul for Hawks forward Glen Saville.
The Hawks were flustered and frustrated and it showed when the Cats peeled off an 11-4 run to lead 39-26 with just over a minute on the clock.
Wollongong managed to finish on a bright note, as Dan Jackson intercepted a pass and ran away for a lay-up to cut Perth’s lead to 42-28 at half-time.
The Cats’ 21 rebounds tripled Wollongong’s dismal seven boards and they connected on 6/12 three-pointers in contrast to the Hawks’ 1/8.
Redhage and unsung bench swingman Hire led Perth with 10 points apiece, while Wagstaff and Lisch each had six.
Just when a comeback appeared unlikely, the home team suddenly found new life.
MacMillan scored on a put-back from an offensive rebound and followed with a confident low-post move on the next possession.
Adris Deleon kept the crown on its feet with a strong drive against Redhage before baskets by Martin and Deleon again cut the Cats’ lead to one.
When MacMillan scored another put-back, the Hawks had their first lead since the first period.
Wollongong out-scored Perth 18-4 over the final five minutes of the third quarter and the teams were tied at 51-all heading into the final period.
The Cats moved ahead by four, but Hurdle kept his side in the hunt, scoring their next seven points.
Perth still had their noses in front before Rhys Martin found MacMillan with a perfect pick-and-roll pass for a lay-up and a 63-62 lead.
Forman hit two free throws after a technical foul on Wagstaff and Martin’s steal and lay-up put the Hawks up by five with less than five minutes to play.
Lisch and Redhage hit late shots to keep fans on the edge of their seats, but the Hawks kept their cool from the free throw line in the closing seconds.
Wollongong will be seeking another win on the road tonight against the Sydney Kings.