HE won't go down as the greatest Hawks import of all-time, but Justin Simon did what virtually none of his predecessors could in snapping his side's Perth hoodoo in a semi-final thriller in Perth on Thursday night.
On a night in which the visitors were seemingly never in the hunt, Simon led a rear-guard action with the help of a late-surging Justinian Jessup in a stunning 74-72 boil-over victory at RAC Arena.
Simon's one-hand put-back over three Wildcats defenders with 16 seconds left was the dagger in a famous victory that brings last year's wooden-spooners within one home win of an unlikely grand final appearance.
The highlight reel slam gave his side a three-point lead, its biggest of the game, after twice trailing by as much as 10 in the opening half at a venue that's been a graveyard for visiting Illawarra teams.
After a slow 0-5 start from the field, Jessup had eight of his side's final 10 points to finish with 17 points, while Simon stuffed the sheet with 16 points, nine rebounds, three assists and two steals.
It came on a night where MVP candidate Tyler Harvey was conspicuously cold with 10 points at 4-21 from the field. In the end, it was the supporting cast that stole the show ahead of Saturday's game two at the WIN Entertainment Centre.
It was just the second win for the Hawks in 36 previous trips West and the Wildcats first ever game-one finals defeat at RAC Arena.
"We thought tonight it was going to be real important, his defensive presence on the ball," Goorjian said of Simon's heroics.
"Tonight it was so many things, steals, rebounds, carrying the ball in transition finding people and then offensive rebounds...he's an interesting piece, he's different than the other two [Harvey and Jessup] but really special tonight and he was probably the difference for us.
"I know the history [in Perth] but this is a whole different franchise, whole different organisation and we felt good about ourselves coming in. We came into this game thinking we had a chance, and as the game went on I just kept looking at the score clock and saying 'if we can just not let it go, stay in it'.
"We've got Justinian [Jessup] and Tyler [Harvey] that are dangerous late in the game from the three and...a lot of times it's Tyler but tonight it was Justinian. It's a series, it is young, it exciting but it means nothing unless we get the next one, we're on about trying to win this series."
Former Hawk Todd Blanchfield looked like he would come back to haunt his old club in the cruelest way, lighting up the first half and finishing with 24 points at 6-12 from long range.
He also nabbed his side's final bucket to get within one with seven seconds left, though his final half-court heave on the buzzer didn't go close.
John Mooney (13) and Luke Travers (12) reached double figures but the defending champs were ultimately choked out by a Simon-led defence down the stretch.
With 24 of the last 25 NBL finals series having been won by game one victors, the favouritism pendulum will likely swing back to Brian Goorjian's team ahead of game two.
Sam Froling had a handy 10 points and seven rebounds, while Tim Coenraad's 10 points at 3-6 from long-range were crucial as the Hawks ran-down a deficit.
Froling had a couple from the line and his side's only two field goals in its first eight attempts, with six points from Mooney helping the Cats to a 12-6 cushion.
Blanchfield's first three extended the margin nine and forced Goorjian into his first timeout. Isaac White fired with a much-needed triple out of the stoppage on a 6-0 run that brought the margin back to three.
Blanchfield had his second three as the margin ballooned to 10 before Harvey finally broke his drought with a triple to bring things back to six at quarter-time.
Coenraad and Blanchfield traded long bombs early in the second but it was the latter who followed up with another as the lead swelled to 10.
Simon had a quick six points to to dent the Cats tempo and bring the margin back to six, with a length-of-floor dish from Harvey letting White beat the buzzer keeping it that way at the half.
Jessup finally grabbed his first points and followed up with his first three, while Simon had four on an 8-5 run to start the second. Blanchfield and Coenraad again traded threes, the latter levelling the scores at 49 apiece, Trevor Gleeson picking up a technical in the process.
Corenraad took his side's first lead of the game from the line next time up the floor, though Steindl took it back at the other end, with the hosts taking a four-point lead into the final break.
Coenraad nailed another three and Froling put Wagstaff on a poster to draw back within one. A three from Mooney steadied the Cats before Wagstaff, perhaps still reeling from the Froling dunk, flattened Jessup with an offensive foul called for excessive contact.
Harvey levelled up with his second from deep but the hosts went 6-0, with a pair of easy buckets to Norton. Jessup fired from long range and added two more from the line to again make it a one-point game with under two minutes to play.
Norton went one of two before Jessup again grabbed a triple to take the lead with a minute left before Froling missed a bunny under the hoop.
He won the ball back at the other end before Simon slammed home a one-handed offensive rebound for a three-point lead with 16 seconds left.
Blanchfield laid one in to bring it back to one with eight seconds left but it was as close as the hosts got before the final buzzer sang.