IT had the look of an epic victory but a stunning fourth-quarter comeback wasn't enough for Illawarra on Sunday, with the Hawks leaving their run too late against South East Melbourne.
The Hawks trailed by as much as 18 in the third quarter and entered the final term 13 points behind only to draw within four and give themselves a sniff of victory.
In the end it was all they got, with a pair of Kendall Stephens daggers seeing off the late rear-guard action and sealing a 90-82 win for the Phoenix.
Stephens finished with 20 points at 6-11 from downtown, with half coming in a 17-0 run in the second quarter than proved the telling factor in the result.
Dane Pineau was also huge in a depleted front court with a double-double before three-quarter-time. He finished with 14 points at a perfect 7-7 from the field and 18 rebounds in a monstrous effort on the glass.
He had a more than willing foe in the paint in Hawks rookie Sam Froling, who had 13 points and 11 rebounds in a breakout performance for the hosts.
Dan Grida sparked the late surge and finished with 13 points, while Todd Blanchfield (15) Sunday Dech (13) were the other Hawks in double digits.
It continued a frustrating run of outs for coach Matt Flinn who was again left lamenting his side's habit of conceding points in runs.
"Coaching this team is such a roller coaster," Flinn said.
"It could be mental, I'm not hiding behind any excuses, there's some fundamental stuff we need to fix with our offense and get better flow.
"We were stringing stops together early in the game and really laying the foundation there to put a good performance on.
"We were getting back to back stops that were feeding our running game early and then we just had that patch in the second and third quarters where we just leaked a lot of points.
"I think we gave up 29 [in the second] and 28 in the third. We were a little bit clunky in our offense early in the second and, ultimately, scoreboard pressure got us in the end."
Nursing injury, Ben Madgen had a crucial 17 points and five assists while John Roberson had 12 and seven in a win that keep their finals hopes alive.
It sees the Hawks drop to 5-17 ahead of Saturday's road trip to Brisbane to take on a Bullets outfit that's breathed new life into its finals hopes.
Mitch Creek and Darington Hobson traded threes early and the hosts led 8-7 on back to back buckets from Dech. Glover lifted the roof with a steal and transition slam as it stayed a one-point game.
Blanchfield got going with six for the term as the hosts took a five-point lead, but Pineau kept his side in touch with six and Creek chimed in with his second triple.
Grida had the last say of a see-sawing term with his first three for an eight-point cushion at quarter-time.
Stephens and Dech traded threes early in the second as the Hawks briefly pushed their lead to nine. Stephens cut it back to four with his second triple, prompting Flinn to call timeout.
It did nothing to slow the Phoenix sharpshooter, who had the next five points after the resumption and punctuated a 17-0 run with his fourth not long after.
AJ Ogilvy finally halted the run with a tip in but Madgen had four to close the term that saw the Phoenix turn a nine-point deficit into an eight-point halftime lead.
Roberson finally got going in the third with five points while Pineau had six points to notch a double-double with more than a quarter and a half to play.
The Hawks did little to put a dent in the deficit that ballooned to 18 with a minute to go in the term before Grida went three of three on two trips to the line to close the quarter with the margin at 13.
Froling brought things back to single digits less than a minute into the final stanza with back to back buckets making it a seven-point game.
Grida made it even tighter with an and-one on a 9-2 run that forced Simon Mitchell to call timeout with the lead whittled back down to a single score.
It was as close as they got, with Roberson and Stephens nailing consecutive threes to push the margin back out to eight.
Blanchfield had three from the line but another three to Stephens proved the dagger with just over a minute remaining.