IT was the SBL Grand Final rematch from last year, but the Geraldton Buccaneers were rightfully still shaken from losing Liam Hunt the previous night and the Joondalup Wolves shook them off in the second half at HBF Arena to remain undefeated in the West Coast Classic.
The Wolfpack improved to a 3-0 record to start the West Coast Classic on the back of Sunday’s 88-58 victory against the Buccaneers at HBF Arena, but up until half-time it was a tremendously brave fight put up by the remarkably shorthanded Buccs led by Aaron Ralph.
It’s unfortunate that West Coast Classic performances won’t count on SBL careers as Ralph chases down the No. 1 spot in the league for three-point shots because he produced a phenomenal first half on Sunday with the Buccs missing Liam and Jesse Hunt.
Jesse was still back in Geraldton for the weekend after feeling unwell before the team departed, but it was then the loss of reigning Grand Final MVP Liam on Saturday night in Rockingham that left the Buccs shocked.
After leading his team last Sunday to a win over East Perth and having signed to play in Germany after the West Coast Classic, the big man was on top of the world until going down against the Flames with a horrific knee injury.
It has turned out to be a dislocated knee and on top of that ruptures to both the anterior and medial cruciate ligaments, meaning it will be a long road back for the popular figure with the world at his feet.
Buccs coach Dayle Joseph provided an update post-match on Sunday.
“Liam being Liam, he was quite positive this morning with a couple of text messages and he was just trying to be upbeat about the whole thing. He said he’s excited about going through the whole recovery ahead so that’s a guy with a positive attitude in life,” Joseph said.
“I’m sure he’ll be OK eventually and he’ll have his ups and downs I’m sure over the next 12 months but he has a whole community, team and club behind him, and obviously a great family.
“I’m sure he’ll get through it and basketball is probably the last thing he should be thinking about right now. He’ll be wanting just to get the knee right and then focus on getting back to walk, to run and if basketball comes to him then it’ll happen at the right time.”
However, the Buccaneers shook that off on Sunday despite virtually playing without any guards with SBL experience or any genuine bigs. It was largely a team of three and four men, but not to be deterred they still managed to lead the Wolves 38-31 with just over five minutes left in the first half.
Ralph had been simply on fire, showing why he has been such a standout over 399 games in the SBL for Geraldton. He hit three triples in a minute to take the Buccs from two points down to seven up, and went into half-time with a stunning 27 points.
However, Reece Maxwell and Trian Iliadis combined to give Joondalup a 16-2 run to close the opening half and lead 50-40 at the main break.
With the Buccs so undermanned, the Wolves ran away with the game in the second half with 38 points to 18 to win 88-58.
Afterwards, Joseph was proud of the effort of the Buccs but ultimately they were just overpowered.
“I don’t think it was tough to get up for this game, I think everyone dealt with it last year and the boys and everyone were in a bit of shock about the whole situation,” he said.
“But this morning was the same story, you turn up and play, and we had 10 guys suit up which is all we needed to play.
“The guys made a pact to play hard no matter what and I thought we tried our hearts out and put ourselves in a position early where we thought we could do OK, but we certainly ran out of a bit of depth against a Wolves team that is SBL quality.
“Anyone is going to find it tough to beat them, but I thought we put up a good fight early and just couldn’t hold on.”
The Wolfpack did play without former Wildcats guard and Perry Lakes 2018 championship winner Lochlan Cummings, but had plenty of depth to cover with 2017 Grand Final MVP Lee Roberts producing 16 points and 12 rebounds.
Seb Salinas added 14 points on 4/9 shooting from deep with Trian Iliadis also scoring 14 points on 4/8 from long-range to go with seven assists and six rebounds. Rob Huntington added 14 points and four rebounds while Reece Maxwell finished with 11 points, five rebounds and three assists.
Matthew Teale also contributed eight points and six rebounds while Daniel Vlahov finished with six points.
Aaron Ralph finished with 30 points and eight rebounds for the Buccaneers including going 7/16 from three-point territory.
Brayden Inger contributed eight points and two assists, Xavier Garnett-Shaw six points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots, and James Paringatai six points and three boards.
The Sunday win leaves the Wolfpack at 3-0 to start the West Coast Classic ahead of a tantalising match up with the Kalamunda Eastern Suns on Friday night at HBF Arena.
That will see their two-time championship winning coach who took them to six Grand Finals including the last five in-a-row, Ben Ettridge, part of the Kalamunda coaching staff.
This was a tough weekend for the Buccaneers up against Rockingham and Joondalup, but Joseph is looking at the positives of what being thrown in the deep end will do for the likes of his sons River and Dempsey, Johny Narkle, Xavier Garnett-Shaw and Will Galvin.
“I thought the Rockingham game was one where we were pretty well matched and we thought we could pinch a win there. We were playing great early with both teams having some strengths in different areas, and were playing to those strengths so it was up and down a bit early,” he said.
“I thought we had an advantage there at one stage but we had a real bad third quarter with a lot of things going against us to be honest which made it hard for us to get up for the last quarter. Then we had Liam’s injury and it was easy for things to get away from us at that point.
“Even in this game, I said to River that four of the games he’ll be playing on have pretty much played 300-plus SBL games so he is playing his first weekend of starting basketball in the SBL. He is going to take that and try to improve, and maybe that helps us next year with that added depth.
“Same with Johny, we have given him some defensive jobs and he would have played on Cummings today if he suited up but he did get to play on guys like Iliadis. We know how good he can be offensively but we’re looking at him to improve defensively, and you do that a lot quicker against the best.”
The Buccs are now 1-3 after two road trips to start the West Coast Classic and they now are back on the bus next week for games on Saturday night against the Perth Redbacks and on Sunday against the Eastern Suns.
“It’s not a bad thing I guess to get these road trips out of the way and then have a bit of a run at home. It will be another tough weekend against the Redbacks and Suns,” Joseph said.
“They might be looking forward to playing us as well so it will be a tough weekend for us, but we are just trying to get some minutes into our kids and seeing how they can contribute. We have a lot of upside.”
WEST COAST CLASSIC 2020 – MEN
South West Slammers 65 lost to Rockingham Flames 76
Perth Redbacks 112 defeated Cockburn Cougars 76
Willetton Tigers 80 defeated Mandurah Magic 72
Lakeside Lightning 100 defeated Perry Lakes Hawks 78
Goldfields Giants 87 defeated Kalamunda Eastern Suns 76
Rockingham Flames 84 defeated Geraldton Buccaneers 70
Mandurah Magic 94 defeated East Perth Eagles 90
Warwick Senators 130 defeated South West Slammers 58
Cockburn Cougars 88 lost to Joondalup Wolves 92
Perry Lakes Hawks 93 defeated Perth Redbacks 65
Joondalup Wolves 88 defeated Geraldton Buccaneers 58