PERTH - LaMelo Ball mania came to Perth on Friday night.
A near sold out crowd packed into RAC Arena hoping to see the NBL’s shiny new prospect show his NBA prowess off. They came excited, hoping to witness a fluorescent performance by an American combo guard. This is exactly what they got, although it came from a man who has repeatedly revealed himself to the Wildcats faithful.
Bryce Cotton overshadowed Ball’s first trip to Western Australia with an offensive eruption that fuelled the Perth Wildcats' 103-76 victory over Illawarra. Cotton finished the night with 28 points, 23 of which came during a first half showing that all but ended the competitive portion of this game. Perth took a 53-37 advantage into the half time break and, thanks to their star import, secured their second consecutive victory to open the season.
"In the first half, I was able to get some great looks," said Cotton postgame. "The guys were setting great screens."
Cotton’s eruption came across all three levels of the Hawks defence. He started the night slashing and driving thought the defence to score, before taking control with his shot from behind the arc. Dario Hunt’s brute force on the interior served a perfect complement to Cotton’s silky touch, as the 30 year old big man finished with an NBL career-high 16 points.
"I thought he was outstanding," Wildcats head coach Trevor Gleeson said of Hunt. "He was physical. He was able to hold the space around him. Hold his ground against the bigger and taller opponents. He showed some glimpses under the bright lights. His work ethic on the glass was top notch."
After a sloppy start, one that that saw the Hawks jump out to a lead 15-8, the Wildcats clicked into gear defensively and gave Cotton an ideal platform to tear the game part with his offensive excellence. A 20-7 run Wildcats run to close the first quarter was leveraged by the best stretch of resistance Perth has shown on the young season. It set the tone for the remainder of the game. It put the Ball appreciation on the back burner and it provided Gleeson with a momentary sense of relief.
"At the end of the first quarter, we held them on the 20-7 run to close the quarter," said Gleeson. "It really got us that separation and then in the second quarter we really clamped down, we dried up the easy points and the guys were on song defensively."
For his part, Ball showed glimpses of the talents that make him appear a certain lottery pick in next year’s NBA draft. His passing and playmaking awed an unfamiliarly friendly Wildcats crowd, one that was flooded with a raft of Ball jerseys and Big Baller merchandise. Ball, who finished with 15 points and 7 assists in 33 minutes of action, drew applause from the moment he stepped on the court for pregame warmups. The recognition from Wildcats fans only drew as the 18 year old gilded up and down the court, although the much hyped prospect was unable to prevent the Perth lead from ballooning over the middle two quarters.
By the time the third quarter ended, the Wildcats held a 27-point lead, with the final 10 minutes reduced to garbage time.
Individual showings by both American guards will draw headlines, but the biggest takeaway tonight, when it comes to this NBL season so far is the Wildcats finding their rhythm on the defensive end. A resourceful first up victory over Melbourne United covered up a sloppy defensive showing from the reigning title holders. A familiar sight unfolded over the opening minutes tonight, before Gleeson’s men tightened up and gave Illawarra a first hand glimpse of their championship fundamentals.
The Hawks crawled to 34 points over the middle two quarters, and there was no relief until Perth emptied their bench late.
"It was a step forward for us, because last week we only played two quarters but tonight we played four solid quarters of basketball," Gleeson added.
"Tonight we were really locked in to what we need to do as a team, and that’s a credit to the guys."