NBL 2014/15 Round 20: Taipans claim minor premiership in convincing away victory
The Cairns Taipans have been the best team in the NBL this season and proved their worth, winning a tough match-up with the Breakers 81-77 to claim the minor premiership. Cairns was carried by their mighty import Scottie Wilbekin, who finished with 25 points and four three-pointers. Veteran Alex Loughton was also invaluable, scoring 22 points with 9 rebounds and 4 assists.
The Breakers struggled at times to score and finished the season with a tough loss. With play-off basketball just around the corner, their execution on both sides of the court will need to improve if they are to challenge for the title. Their 34% shooting from the floor was never going to be good enough against the best of the best as the home side had no answer for the class Taipans. Despite Ekene Ibekwe's monster double-double (17 points, 13 rebounds), his teammates' contributions were not enough to get the win.
Cairns were behind in almost every statistical category (rebounds, assists, free-throws made) that mattered, yet still came away with the victory and were rightly crowned the minor premiers.
The Taipans came out firing, running their high powered offense through Cam Gliddon and Loughton, who combined for the visitors first 12 points. The Breakers kept themselves close through the consistent shooting of Corey Webster, who was fresh off his career high 27 points last week. Sporting some freshly cut hair-doos, the Breakers' bench was highly productive in the first quarter as Rhys Carter and Ruben Te Rangi put up 8 points to give the home team a much needed boost. Loughton's ten points helped erase a five point Breakers lead, as the score was tied at 22 going into the second.
A 10-0 run bridging the first two quarters gave the Taipans an early lead, as they played at a higher intensity thanks to bench man Torrey Craig, who had an extra gear in transition. Going back to their starters, the Breakers regained the lead through a sick cross over by Tom Abercrombie, as he finished in traffic with an acrobatic layup. With the tempo slowing down, both teams struggled to get their half-court offenses rolling and neither team was able to separate themselves on the scoreboard. Despite a 24-16 advantage on the boards, the New Zealanders could not make the most of their extra possessions and the score was again tied going into halftime.
Loughton, in his 200th game, led all scores with 14 at the break, as both teams looked set to battle out a close one. With six minutes to go in the third quarter, both the Taipans and the Breakers found themselves in the penalty, slowing down the game even further. With the Breakers needing to win by 25 to claim the minor premiership, the style of play suited the Taipans to a t. Left wide open, Wilbekin nailed back to back three pointers to give the Taipans a five point lead; His shooting punished the Breakers slow rotations, as they continued to struggle defending opposition point guards. A Blake Griffin esque dunk by Ekene Ibekwe woke up the fans, destroyed Mitchell Young and narrowed the lead to one.
Up 61-55, the Taipans looked like the deserved premiers, showing a touch more class on offense, while the Breakers were looking for someone on their roster to get them jump started. With two and a half minutes gone in the final period, no baskets had been made by either side, punctuating the ugly nature of the contest. Wilbekin's third three-pointer of the half pushed the visitors out to a seven point lead, as he continued his push for the MVP trophy, proving unguardable. Two key offensive rebounds by Loughton and Cam Tragardh kept the Breakers at bay as the home team desperately attempted to get back in the contest. Some hustle from Cedric Jackson and Wesbter narrowed the lead to one on two Webster free-throws, setting up a tense final minute.
A brain explosion from Jackson led to a technical foul and five free throws to Loughton, essentially sealing the game. Four straight points by Ibekwe narrowed the lead again to two with twenty seconds remaining, however with the Breakers forced to foul, Loughton calmly sunk both free-throws and two hail-mary three-point attempts fell short for the home team to end the game.
Next week in the playoffs the Taipans face the Wildcats, whilst the Breakers play host to the hottest team in the NBL, the 36ers. The four best teams have rightly made the playoffs, setting up some juicy match-ups. Stay tuned!
Cairns Taipans 81 (Wilbekin 25, Loughton 22, Tragardh 13)
New Zealand Breakers 77 (Ibekwe 17, Webster 16, Jackson 12)