The Wollongong Hawks went down in a heartbreaker to NBL titleholders New Zealand tonight at WIN Entertainment Centre.
An injury-depleted Hawks pushed the two-time reigning champions all the way, only to lose 78-76.
Forward Tim Coenraad came up with a last-ditch steal in the final frantic seconds but American guard Lance Hurdle was unable to get a shot off before time expired.
Wollongong’s loss was the fifth in their past six games and dropped them from third to fourth on the ladder.
Hurdle finished with 12 points and hit big shots in the fourth quarter, while Coenraad had seven points in his first game of the season after overcoming a foot injury.
But no-one shone brighter for the Hawks than guard Rhys Martin.
The 26-year-old playmaker hit 6/7 three-pointers and almost single-handedly kept his team in the hunt when everybody else went cold in the second quarter.
Martin racked up a career-high 28 points - he had 18 at half-time - and also grabbed five steals.
Wollongong were monstered under the boards yet again, losing the rebound count 39-22.
The Breakers out-scored their opponents 20-6 in the paint and added 10 second-chance points to Wollongong’s none.
Centres Alex Pledger and Will Hudson combined for 28 points and 16 rebounds, Cedric Jackson had 11 points, six assists, six rebounds and five steals, while Mika Vukona finished with 11 points and six rebounds.
Martin and Glen Saville ensured the Hawks got off to a positive start, combining for 13 points in the opening quarter.
Coach Gordie McLeod waited five minutes before inserting Coenraad into the game and he responded by hitting a shot with his first touch.
Fouls were an issue for both teams and a procession of free throws prevented the game from flowing freely.
Wollongong led 16-9 midway through the period but the Breakers hung tough and were only down 20-16 heading into the second quarter.
The Breakers started regularly finding holes in the Hawks’ defence and surged to a six-point lead.
Pledger did most of the damage inside, while Jackson was causing problems at both ends of the court.
But just when the home team was in danger of falling behind by double digits, Martin drained three consecutive three-pointers to cut New Zealand’s lead to 43-42 at half-time.
Martin had 18 points in the half (5/5 field goals, 4/4 free throws), Saville was a factor with eight points and four rebounds, while Hurdle and Oscar Forman combined for 11 points.
Pledger led the Breakers with 12 points and four rebounds and Vukona added nine points.
Wollongong were taught a lesson under the boards, losing the rebound count 23-11 in the first half.
Scoring dried up at both ends when play resumed and the Breakers held a 50-49 edge after six minutes of the third period.
Hawks guard Adris Deleon couldn’t take a trick, missing shots from the perimeter and falling short and everything he attempted in the paint.
Martin boosted his tally to 25, but it wasn’t enough to stop the visitors from taking a 62-56 lead at three-quarter time.
The margin swelled to nine early in the fourth period before the Hawks mounted a trademark charge, cutting the deficit to 69-67 with six minutes remaining.
Hurdle drained a clutch three to give Wollongong their first lead since the opening stages of the second quarter but Abercrombie immediately silenced 3756 fans with a jump-shot from the top of the key.
The Hawks kept fighting, regaining the lead on Forman’s off-balance three as the shot-clock expired.
Wollongong suffered a crucial defensive breakdown on the next possession, allowing long-time Hawks killer CJ Bruton to get open for the go-ahead three-pointer.
They had a chance to steal victory or force overtime but the league-leading Breakers escaped with their 12th victory of the season.
The Hawks host Cairns next Friday.