THE Willetton Tigers had no choice but to beat the Cockburn Cougars at Willetton Basketball Stadium on Friday night if they wanted to stay in the West Coast Classic finals race, and they got the job done to set up a do-or-die Saturday evening.
The Tigers have been impressive the whole West Coast Classic in terms of their consistently strong performances, but entering the final round they still found themselves needing to win twice if they wanted to book in a spot in next Friday night’s semi finals.
The first job for Willetton was on their home floor on Friday night against a Cougars team that might have been out of the finals hunt, but who had been playing good basketball themselves and that had enough quality led by Gavin Field to make things difficult for the Tigers.
And that was certainly the case with the Cougars refusing to lie down even after Field fouled out with three minutes remaining. Nathan Pond made some big buckets down low and suddenly the Tigers were only up two and the pressure was on.
But their defence stood firm down the final 90 seconds, Hayden Noordhoek hit a big jumper and then Damien Scott, Andrew Black and Connor Mincherton hit some free-throws to secure the 81-74 victory.
What that means now is that the Tigers simply have to beat the Joondalup Wolves on Saturday night at HBF Arena and they will play finals.
Complicating matters is that the Wolfpack have to win the game as well if they want to be part of next Friday’s semi finals and there won’t be room in the top four for both teams.
The full Wolves coaching staff of Andrew Summerville, Conrad Francis, Michael Van Lit and Dave Jackson were all on hand watching eagerly at Willetton Basketball Stadium as the Tigers and Wolfpack now meet at Joondalup with all on the line.
Tigers coach Stephen Black is just proud that his team has given themselves a chance and now they’ll throw everything at beating the Wolves to advance.
“They are very talented obviously, they shoot the ball extremely well and it’s going to be a massive challenge,” Black said.
“But I just feel confident in what we’ve been doing all season so as long as we come out and play with the energy that we’ve been playing with, and the unselfishness that we’ve been playing with, then if we hit some shots we might be alright.”
Willetton always knew that to make it to the finals in the West Coast Classic that they had to win twice this weekend in the space of 24 hours, but Friday night at home to the Cougars was always going to be a tricky affair with the pressure to set up a cut-throat battle with the Wolves.
The Cougars might have still been without rising superstar Luke Travers who now hasn’t played since having 40 points, 36 rebounds and 12 assists across two games back in Round 4, but with Gavin Field and a strong support cast, they arrived motivated to upset the finals hopes of their local rivals.
Andrew Black and Damien Scott hit some big shots early for the Tigers but when Field nailed a triple for the Cougars, the game was on.
The Cougars stayed close with a triple from Jaarod Holmes too but Scott produced nine first quarter points to help the Tigers lead 23-17 after one.
Black hit a three to make the lead seven but a couple of consecutive buckets to Noah Stewart, and another to Field and in the blink of an eye it was a tied ball game again midway through the second.
A Lewis Thomas three-point play steadied Willetton as did another three-point bomb from Black, and the Tigers went into half-time with the momentum and a 47-38 on the back of three free-throws for Scott on the buzzer.
Yet another three-ball from Black to open the second half had the Tigers then up by double-figures and they were threatening to blow it out when Thomas scored inside again to take the lead to 14.
Dylan Hampson made it 16 but once more Cockburn just refused to go away as has been their trademark and had cut that deficit in half by three quarter-time.
Scott hit a huge three with 3:30 remaining in the game to again have the Tigers looking comfortable leading by seven, but then Holmes scored on a hook shot inside and the Cougars stayed in touch.
Field fouled out shortly after and you could the energy leave the crowd a little, but the Cougars players didn’t give up. Young big man Nathan Pond scored twice down in the block and Seva Chan nailed a huge turnaround fadeaway mid-range jumper and it was a two-point game.
But the Cougars couldn’t find another score the lead minute and-a-half and it was a Hayden Noordhoek finish that provide the dagger as the Tigers went on for the crucial 81-74 victory to now set up a must-win clash for both themselves and Wolves on Saturday night at HBF Arena.
Tigers coach Stephen Black might not have been overly happy with his team’s shooting on the night with 41 per cent from the field, 21 per cent from downtown and even 55 per cent from the foul line, but the effort was certainly there.
Damien Scott finished with 23 points, seven rebounds, six assists and four steals with backcourt partner Andrew Black delivering 17 points and four assists on 4/8 shooting from three-point land.
Lewis Thomas came up huge too for 16 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks with Connor Mincherton adding nine points, Dylan Hampson six, Travis Fee five and Hayden Noordhoek five.
“If you look at the positives you would say we didn’t shoot the ball well at all and we still managed to get to 80 and defended well,” Black said.
“So from that perspective I was really happy and I did think we did a pretty good job on Gav who is a special player and he requires some special attention.
“I thought that Dylan and Hayden in particular did a really good job on him and Lewis was so important to our versatile inside tonight as well. There were some positives to take out of that.”
Gavin Field put up another 16 points, five rebounds and three assists for Cockburn with Jaarod Holmes delivering 12 points and eight boards, Hayden Bell 10 points and four rebounds, Nathan Pond 10 points and four boards, and Seva Chan eight points and three assists.
No matter what happens now for the Tigers on Saturday night against the Wolves, it’s a West Coast Classic campaign they deserve to be proud of.
Take out the imports Patrick Burke and Mo Barrow they expected to have for the SBL season in 2020, and this is a group that has got the best out of themselves.
They are well led by Damien Scott, Andrew Black and Lewis Thomas, but the next tier of Michael Garbellini, Hayden Noordhoek and Scott Elder have stepped up along with youngsters Lachlan Evans, Connor Mincherton, Dylan Hampson and Travis Fee.
They might have lost four games along the way, but it’s not unreasonable suggest each of them could have gone the other way with a bit of luck after they gave up winning leads against the Senators and Lightning, lost to the Hawks in overtime and the Redbacks on the buzzer.
Now obviously they will be disappointed not to win on Saturday night against Joondalup and not to take part in next Friday’s semi finals to give themselves a chance at Sunday night’s Grand Final, but there has been lots anyway for coach Black to be proud about.
“We probably made the decision at the end of last season to say that we need to give Travis Fee, Connor Mincherton and Lachie Evans their opportunities because they’ve deserved it,” Black said.
“Particularly someone like Travis who really didn’t get a look in at all and I think that we feel justified in saying these kids were ready and they just needed their chance. They have gone out there and taken it.
“They’re not handed anything, everything they’ve got they have deserved and they have been really important contributors. Scotty is a superstar and he has carried us in a lot of games, but we have got great contributions from all of those guys like Hayden, Hampson, Garbellini, Mincherton and Lachie.
“Lachie Evans has been really important for us and we’ve really missed him, and hopefully we can get the win tomorrow to get him back in the fold for the finals but he has been huge as well for us.
“He is another kid who has just put in the effort and bided his time, and been really important to the consistency we’ve been able to play with this year.”
WEST COAST CLASSIC 2020 – MEN
Willetton Tigers 81 defeated Cockburn Cougars 74
Geraldton Buccaneers v South West Slammers – Active West Stadium 6pm
Goldfields Giants v East Perth Eagles – Niels Hansen Basketball Stadium 7pm
Cockburn Cougars v Perry Lakes Hawks – Wally Hagan Stadium 7pm
Lakeside Lightning v Perth Redbacks – Lakeside Recreation Centre 7pm
Warwick Senators v Rockingham Flames – Warwick Stadium 7pm
Joondalup Wolves v Willetton Tigers – HBF Arena 7pm
Mandurah Magic v Kalamunda Eastern Suns – Mandurah Aquatic and Recreation Centre 7pm