It won't be remembered as a classic, but the Hawks have started their new era under interim coach Justin Tatum with a gutsy 69-65 victory over the Breakers on Sunday.
In a game that was riddled with errors, it was veteran Gary Clark who delivered the dagger blow, producing a massive dunk before sinking two free throws to lead his side to a much-needed victory.
It was the side's first win under Tatum and came just days after the mid-week sacking of Jacob Jackomas. The win improves Illawarra's campaign record to 3-7, and snapped its unfortunate run of 18 losses from its last 19 road games.
The Hawks were all over the hosts early, jumping out to a 14-5 lead midway through the first term. The Breakers then built into the contest to the cut the deficit to 19-12 at quarter time, which they whittled down to trail by 36-35 at halftime.
The arm-wrestle continued in the third quarter, with neither side grabbing the ascendancy, but it was Illawarra who led 53-51 going into the last term.
The end-to-end basketball continued in the last, with the score locked at 65-65 heading into the last 40 seconds. With the pressure building, it was Clark who stepped up to prove the match-winner.
"I just want to say congrats to the coach. He's been with us from the beginning... and it means nothing more than to get this dub for him," Clark said in the post-match press conference.
"He's been in the fire with us and it's been a big week for us. But it was a fresh sheet of paper for all of the guys and the biggest thing tonight is everyone stayed together. When we went up, we stayed together. When we went down, we stayed together and just trusted the process.
"Whatever line up went out there did their job and no-one came out frustrated. We were just preaching positivity and everyone stayed the course, and we came out victorious. They trusted the plan that coach and the rest of the guys got us prepared for.
"We're excited to get back to the Gong and get some dubs for the Illawarra Hawks fans."
Tatum makes his mark
Tatum - the father of NBA superstar Jayson - showed plenty of emotions but also provided great support from the sideline during the game. In a pre-game interview, he told ESPN that he wanted the Hawks to "push some buttons" and do "some things my way", providing a different voice for the players.
Tatum added that he wanted Illawarra to "take the roboticness" out of their offense and play with freedom. The Hawks' offensive woes certainly didn't disappear on Sunday, but they looked as willing as ever to take their opportunities.
"One of the keys to winning the game - and a non-negotiable - was our effort and communication. We wanted our guys to have fun, and that effort that Gary came to get that offensive rebound and finish with two free throws was exactly what we were talking about. Everyone in that locker room did exactly what I asked," Tatum said.
"It was fun for me. Basketball is fun and coaching is very fun, but this was a different speed. This was a different talent pace and these guys are very good at what they do. But it was very fun to be out with these group of guys that I've been with the last four months, and seeing them play to their potential.
"It was very enjoyable to be on the sideline with them."
Strange substitutions... again
Tatum will be given some time to work his way into the role, however, the interim coach did raise an eyebrow or two when he benched stars Tyler Harvey and Gary Clark at a crucial stage in the last quarter on Sunday.
Neither player was in trouble from a foul perspective and, to add further conversion, Harvey had just drained a massive three-pointer when he was brought to the sideline.
The move came just one week after Jackomas benched Harvey from the outset against the Taipans, in seemingly one desperate roll of the dice.
It's hard to overstate how important Sam Froling has become to the Hawks' structure this season.
Illawarra's co-captain mustered a double-double (16 points, 12 rebounds) on Sunday, providing a consistent avenue to the basket and there wasn't much else that the big man could do to inspire his teammates.
With Tyler Harvey showing some inconsistent form, and Justin Robinson struggling to hit his straps, Froling has become as important as ever to this Illawarra side.
"It's been a crazy week for us, so for the boys to come out and respond was huge," Froling told ESPN post-match.
"He's (Tatum) got such a good attitude about him, and we needed to bring that energy as well - and I think we did a good job of that tonight. This was a fresh start for us, we're 1-0 basically now, and we've just got to keep chipping away for the rest of the season.
"We've got a break now, but we've got practise together to get a feel for the changes that we've made. And it's just about the trust in each other to keep going."
Hello, Mr Johnson
Hawks fans have been waiting for AJ Johnson to arrive, and the Next Star showed what he can do with a massive two-hand dunk over Dane Pineau in the first quarter.
The teenager's on-court minutes have been very limited since arriving in Wollongong. However, Tatum showed faith in the 18-year-old on Sunday, with Johnson given eight minutes of game time - his second most in a game this season.
The Illawarra faithful will want plenty more of that, however, it's certainly a good base for expansion.
What's doing, Justin?
Justin Robinson's form slump must be starting to become a real concern for the Hawks coaching staff.
It was another quiet performance from the 26-year-old in NZ, contributing just two points and going at 1-5 from the field in the opening three quarters.
While he had four assists, Robinson was benched early in the fourth after picking up his fourth personal foul. However, he returned late in the term to nail an important bucket and extend his side's lead to three points.
But it's concerning for a man who was seen as crucial to the Hawks' plans for this NBL campaign.
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