Reigning SBL champions the Geraldton Buccaneers notched their first West Coast Classic win on Sunday overcoming a slow start and an inspired East Perth Eagles comeback with the Hunt brothers the standouts in the 93-88 victory.
For the second time in the opening round of the West Coast Classic the Buccs were coming up against an opponent having not only played a game before hand, but also having recorded a victory.
Geraldton went down to Lakeside on Saturday night before then taking on the challenge of an East Perth team buoyed by a win over Kalamunda on Friday night when they did battle on Sunday afternoon at Herb Graham Leisure Centre.
East Perth made an inspired start to the game hitting the opening 10 points including the first seven courtesy of Shaquille Maharaj before the Buccs settled and even got a quick four-point cameo from returning former star Carter Cook.
But former Senator Logan Thwaites closed the first period with six quick points for the Eagles to see them still up five but it wouldn’t last and the Buccaneers caught fire in the second period.
The personnel might have been different, but it was the type of basketball reminiscent of what took them to last season’s championship with the Hunt brothers providing the grunt inside while also being able to shoot, and then plenty of wing weapons.
A pair of triples from Aaron Ralph and hard-earned buckets from both Jesse and Liam Hunt saw the Buccs assume the lead, and then go on with it by putting up 34 points in the second quarter to lead 48-34 at the half.
East Perth refused to concede the contest, though, and delivered their own inspired third quarter which included a stunning four triples from Maharaj who added 21 points in the period alone to give East Perth a one-point edge heading into the fourth.
Jesse Hunt regained Geraldton’s lead to start the fourth with an and-one but East Perth was soon back in front thanks to Ryan Woodbury. A Kieran Berry three kept the Eagles in front too but last year’s Grand Final MVP Liam Hunt wasn’t going to let the Buccs go home 0-2.
He put the team on his back down the stretch and bullied his way to the basket in unstoppable fashion with the energy and passion only he has.
He got the lead back for Geraldton and then two threes from Ralph, and impressive work from new faces Xavier Garnett-Shaw and Johny Narkle was enough for the Buccaneers to hold on for the 93-88 win.
Buccs championship winning coach Dayle Joseph always knew it would be a challenging weekend for his team especially when they were facing opponents having already played a game, and won, but overall he and his group went home content.
“Saturday’s game was really our first real hit out in a while so we knew we’d be a bit scrappy and would have to learn some things on the run, and change some things on the run,” Joseph said.
“Our thing was to not get upset with each other because we’re all going to make mistakes, me included so we just said to each other stick with it, we’d talk about it and hopefully we could split the road trip. That’s what we wanted to do at least and that’s what we have done, so we go back home pretty happy.”
There are positives and negatives for every team in the West Coast Classic in terms of the personnel from what they would have had in the SBL for 2020, but for the Buccs the great plus is that brothers Liam and Jesse Hunt are playing together when they otherwise wouldn’t be.
They showed just how huge they are going to be over the next eight weeks too combining for 45 points, 24 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and two blocked shots in Sunday’s win with their legendary father Dan in the stands watching.
Liam, coming off last year’s Grand Final MVP, is heading to Germany later this year but was tremendous with 24 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and two blocks with Jesse also delivering 21 points, 12 boards, four assists and two steals.
Understandably, Joseph is pretty excited to have the pair.
“They both had really good games today. Jesse was lagging a bit in our first game but he’s straight out of quarantine and hadn’t done anything for two weeks, but he played a lot better today,” Joseph said.
“I think he’s excited to be playing with his brother Liam as well and to see his dad sitting in the stands is pretty cool. I saw the boys meeting James Fitch here earlier today as well which would have been pretty cool for them.
“They play with a hell of a lot of passion and we can all learn from that. They drag everyone along and you can hear them out on the court all the time.
“It might sound like they are angry, but they are just trying to lift their teammates and make them accountable because we do have expectations we need to happen out there. They are both leaders in their own right and it’s so good that they have this chance to play together.”
Aaron Ralph also delivered 20 points and nine rebounds for Geraldton on 5/9 shooting from three-point territory with Johny Narkle producing 12 points, four rebounds and three steals, and the returning Carter Cook five points.
There encouraging signs with Xavier Garnett-Shaw and River Joseph, Dayle’s son, as well but really the coach is just happy to be back playing after what has been a challenging 2020 up to this point.
“It’s really good to be back here playing. The guys are really excited and we did have a bit of a dull time there where no one really knew what was going on,” he said.
“The boys were ringing me to see if they could use the courts or go for a shot, and I had to keep saying no and tell them to just keep themselves fit some other ways.
“But as soon as they got the call up to go and have some shots, every single one of them was there who were in town and we had a blast getting through some things again.
“To find out we’d be playing again, first off we thought it would be great to just have some fun but then that competitive side kicks in, and you want to win as much as ever. The boys want to win no matter what the competition is and they want to play their best, and I think they did pretty good this weekend.”
There was plenty to like from an East Perth perspective too under new coach Luke Coburn, and coming off Friday’s win against the Eastern Suns.
Shaquille Maharaj was outstanding especially with his 21-point third quarter on the way to 32 for the game to go with four steals, three assists and three rebounds.
Kieran Berry added 17 points and seven assists with Logan Thwaites contributing eight points and four rebounds, Isaac Offereins eight points, Nic Fillpo six points and Joel Offereins five to go with five rebounds, five assists and two steals.
It’s fair to say for Geraldton the team from last year’s Grand Final win to the SBL this season was going to be massively different, and now their group what they expected in the SBL to the West Coast Classic is equally as changed.
There are no imports with Shaun Stewart and Kyle Roach no longer here and neither is Xavier Shaw nor Zach Te Puni and of course from last season, Colter Lasher, Brendan Dinardo, Marcus Alipate and Alex Ducas have moved on.
But still there are the Hunt brothers, Ralph is showing no signs of slowing down, Brayden Inger will have more responsibility, Mat Wundenberg could still come in to play some home games and then there’s the exciting young talent like Narkle, Garnett-Shaw, and River and Demsey Joseph.
Coach Joseph sees no reason the Buccs of 2020 can’t be more than competitive especially if they can stay afloat in this three-week road stretch to start the season due to the renovations work yet to be completed back on Active West Stadium.
“This is pretty much our team. We did think we’ve had Aidan Gardiner who is an exciting talent, but it now looks like he’s off to the US in a couple of weeks and that’s great for him,” Joseph said.
“We were working on having him in the line-up but we’d never stop someone from chasing their dreams. We’ll just play with what we’ve got and play to our strengths, and try to improve on some of our weaknesses that stood out this weekend.
“Maty has just had a baby so he’s staying home with his family and I’m not saying he won’t play at all, but he was never going to come on these three road trips in-a-row.
“We are hoping we get another year out of Mat and he is training with us this year, and competing and keeping the boys honest but it’s more about next year for him.”
WEST COAST CLASSIC 2020 – MEN
Joondalup Wolves 98 defeated Perth Redbacks 80
Willetton Tigers 67 lost to Lakeside Lightning 75
East Perth Eagles 87 defeated Kalamunda Eastern Suns 84
South West Slammers 66 defeated Mandurah Magic 62
Perry Lakes Hawks 85 defeated Warwick Senators 83
Warwick Senators 98 defeated Goldfields Giants 50
Lakeside Lightning 77 defeated Geraldton Buccaneers 69
Mandurah Magic 72 lost to Perth Redbacks 83
Rockingham Flames 83 defeated Cockburn Cougars 74
Kalamunda Eastern Suns 68 lost to Willetton Tigers 96
Perry Lakes Hawks 71 defeated Goldfields Giants 65
East Perth Eagles 88 lost to Geraldton Buccaneers 93