OSCAR Forman’s 500th game celebration was over before it began, but Illawarra turned on a party for their home fans all the same with a stunning 96-84 victory over league-leaders Perth on Saturday night.
Forman was a late withdrawal due to a calf injury while AJ Ogilvy also failed to make it onto the court due to a hip injury.
With Mitch Norton (thumb) already on the injured list, the Hawks were under-manned and out-gunned early, trailing by as many as 16 points as the Cats went to work.
It had the Hawks faithful thinking they were in for a long night only to watch their side turn a 16-point deficit into a 12-point victory on one of the truly memorable Sandpit nights.
Star import Demitrius Conger led the charge with 19 of his 21 points coming in the second half to go with three assists and three monster blocks.
Rotnei Clarke also finished with 21 points and six assists but it was the across the board contributions that told the real story.
Tim Coenraad moved past 2000 NBL points, finishing with 11, while Nick Kay had 13 points and seven rebounds, Delvon Johnson had 11 points and six boards while veteran Rhys Martin had seven points and five dimes.
It was undoubtedly the Hawks best win of the season and one of the best of Rob Beveridge’s coaching tenure, halting a four-game losing streak and keeping their play-offs’ flame burning.
“It’s up there, no doubt,” Beveridge said when asked where the win ranked.
“We spoke before the game about how easy it is to make excuses.
“You lose AJ before the game, you lose Oscar before the game, Mitch is already out, you’re playing the number one team in the country, there was no way we were supposed to win that game.
“We were down 26-10 at one stage and I was thinking ‘we’re in deep trouble here’ but I called a timeout and we just flicked the switch on tidying up our poor areas that we spoke about and every single player jumped on board.
“The thing about our group, and I keep saying it over and over, is that the character these guys possess is just amazing. That was one of the biggest character wins of any team I’ve ever coached.”
Jean-Pierre Tokoto led the visitors with 27 points and 12 rebounds while Bryce Cotton had 23 points, though big man Lucas Walker, who had 11 of his 13 in the first quarter, was the only other Wildcat in double digits.
Walker got off to flyer with an early three and dropped 11 of his side’s first 16 points at a perfect 5-5 as the visitors built a 16-point buffer midway through the term.
Kevin White had five quick points including a long bomb while Clarke also had his first triple early in the piece.
Angus Brandt got in on the inside act alongside Walker with four points while Tokoto closed the term with seven of his side’s last 10 points.
Kay had four, with Cody Ellis and Indiana Faithfull dropping late buckets to keep the Hawks within 14 at the first break.
Greg Hire and Tokoto had quick buckets to push the lead out to 18 but it was all the Hawks from there with triples from Coenraad and Martin and a three-point play from Faithfull sparking the hosts.
Clarke chimed in with two triples before Coenraad re-took the lead with his second three midway through the term, forcing Gleeson into a timeout to halt a 22-8 run.
The hosts kept hold of the momentum, with Clarke bagging 12 of his 15 first-half points in the second quarter.
Cotton kept things ticking over for the Cats with eight points for the term, but it wasn’t enough to stop the Hawks taking a 50-49 lead into the break to a standing ovation from their home fans.
Cotton and Conger traded threes to start the third term, the first shots in an enthralling duel between the pair that saw Cotton drop eight for the term and Conger 10, including a steal and fast-break slam as an exclamation point.
Clarke added a triple and an and-one as the hosts led by five at the final interval.
Coenraad fired from long range to start the fourth and the Hawks lead swelled to 11 on the back of Conger’s third three-pointer.
Tokoto gave his side a sniff with 11 points down the stretch but it wasn’t enough to reel in the hosts.