The NZ Breakers have effectively clinched a NBL finals berth with a comeback win over Illawarra.New Zealand have stolen Illawarra’s thunder in crunch time to claim a 77-73 NBL win in Wollongong.
Trailing after every quarter, the Breakers overpowered the Hawks in Friday night’s final period to chalk up their 14th victory of the season and remain in fourth spot with five games remaining.
Edgar Sosa top-scored for New Zealand with 12 points in a low-scoring contest, while American forward Demitrius Conger tallied a game-high 24 for the Hawks and Nick Kay added 17.
A key factor in the win was the Breakers’ bench outscoring their Hawks’ counterparts 38-15. New Zealand also prevailed 47-41 in the all-important rebound battle.
“It was a big game for us and we knew the Hawks were going to come out and fight and scrap, which they did,” Breakers coach Paul Henare said.
“I thought it might be a long night after that start, but the guys hung tough.
“The second unit came in and gave us a really great boost. Those guys came in and steadied the ship for us and it was a tight affair from there.
“It’s a good, gritty win for us and, obviously, an important one. The good thing is that there’s room for improvement.”
The Hawks started well, bolting to a 15-5 lead on the back of Rotnei Clarke’s seven early points.
New Zealand chipped away to trail 20-17 at quarter-time and grabbed their first lead early in the second period.
Baskets were hard to come by at both ends, but scoring wasn’t a problem for Kay, who racked up 11 of his team’s 15 points in the quarter to have 17 at halftime.
Kay’s efforts helped the Hawks regain the lead and they stayed ahead 35-30 at halftime.
Conger shouldered the Illawarra scoring load with 13 points in the third period, but the visitors didn’t flinch and regained the lead late in the quarter.
The Hawks responded again and held a 55-53 lead heading into the final period, only to be run down in crunch time.
Illawarra coach Rob Beveridge said the Breakers went up a level with their physicality.
“The pushing and grabbing and holding, and that’s what happens in playoff basketball, and tonight was a playoff game for us.
“It’s going to be tough to make the playoffs, we’re not going to BS ourselves. Our backs are to the wall. Some games during the season are coming back to haunt us.
“It’s extremely tough and we have to rely on other teams dropping out. It’s going to be very difficult. We have to win five in a row now and four of those are on the road.”
Both teams square off again on Sunday in Auckland.