FINALS in the West Coast Classic came early on Saturday night at Lakeside Recreation Centre as the competition came to the most dramatic of finishes with the Lakeside Lightning needing to win by 15 points to advance, and beating the Perth Redbacks by exactly 15 points.
After nine weeks of competition in the West Coast Classic, things couldn’t have possibly been any better set up coming into the final round.
The first piece in the puzzle that needed to fall was on Friday night and the Willetton Tigers got the job done at home to Cockburn to set the stage for two elimination finals on Saturday night to determine the last two finals spots.
The Warwick Senators and Perry Lakes Hawks were already guaranteed of spots in Friday night’s semi finals, but there were still five teams with legitimate claims on the other two positions.
That set up two straight up knockout affairs firstly between the Joondalup Wolves and Willetton Tigers at HBF Arena, and then the Lakeside Lightning and Perth Redbacks at Lakeside Recreation Centre.
The Rockingham Flames were the wildcard but ultimately they lost big to the Senators so their West Coast Classic campaign was over.
It was a tight and tense affair at HBF Arena all evening between the Wolves and Tigers, but ultimately Joondalup on their home floor prevailed 97-95 to book in a semi-final spot.
That left it all up to the Redbacks and Lightning to determine the last team in the finals, and it wasn’t quite as simple as a winner and loser.
Perth could still hold on to fourth spot with a loss by 14 points or fewer to Lakeside so both teams knew as the night unfolded that not only did the Lightning have to win, they needed to do so by more than the 14 points.
That looked unlikely in a close first half with the Redbacks up 39-37 at the break. But the Lightning then turned things up a notch in the second half and were even leading by as much as 19 points at one stage on the back of a stunning 18-0 run.
But it was a thrilling finish still with both teams knowing that 14-point mark was virtually like scores being level. Lakeside was up 15 with possession from the side, but they turned the ball over with the shot clock turned off giving the Redbacks one last look.
And the Redbacks ran a good play to get a wide open three-point look for 72-game SBL veteran Ezra Nikora, but it wouldn’t fall and Lakeside didn’t allow an offensive board as they won 84-69.
That was enough for Lakeside to leapfrog the Redbacks courtesy of 0.36 of a per cent to go into fourth spot and leave the Redbacks agonisingly short in fifth.
That means that the semi finals will feature the Warwick Senators against the Lightning on Friday night at Warwick Stadium while the Perry Lakes Hawks play the Joondalup Wolves at Bendat Basketball Centre.
The two winners play in the Grand Final of the West Coast Classic on Sunday night at Bendat Basketball Centre.
Lightning coach Dave Daniels couldn’t be happier for his team to go through that experience of a virtual playoff game as they now prepare for a shot at the Senators on Friday night.
“It was crazy. We just didn’t execute that last play and it’s something we’ll continue to work on, but to me that’s the beauty of this season,” Daniels said.
“Obviously we are playing for now, but in the back of everybody’s mind is next year so win or lose tonight we are trying to lose it as an opportunity to get better.
“That mistake could cost us down the road and thankfully we were able to lock in this time, and get a stop there at the end but it was a pretty costly error potentially.
“They knew coming into the game and we talked about what the points were. One of the main things that I wanted to get out of this season was to get a playoff game and the beautiful thing was that this was our playoff game.
“Whether we won or lost, this was a playoff game and we wanted to get in that mindset of being in a playoff game and being down 14 from the start. We played one possession at a time because you have to do that, but we knew we were in a 14-point hole and it was a really good experience for us.”
There were exciting match ups all over the floor between the up-tempo Lightning and Redbacks teams, but none better than in the shooting guard spot and Marshall Nelson and Jack Isenbarger. Both opened the contest hitting three-pointers.
Nelson soon hit a second and when Kyden Edman, who was starting for the injured Tevin Jackson, did the same the Redbacks led early 12-10. That became 17-12 when Nelson drained another triple before he delivered the most amazing of blocked shots flying in from nowhere to deny Jay Bowie.
But Andrew Ferguson and Michael Vigor then combined to help Lakeside to a 25-20 lead by the end of one.
Ezra Nikora hit a three to steady the Redbacks early in the second period and then Edman hit his second from downtown and the margin was just three.
Nikora hit again from three-point land and scores were tied with the Redbacks going on to have the momentum and lead of 39-37 by the half-time break.
The Redbacks were back on top by six midway through the third quarter when Nelson drained another three ball, but Isenbarger answered with a three and Lakeside was about to make their move.
Bowie started to turn his night around with another three too before he finished twice inside in no time having scored, then stolen the ball and scored again to put the Lightning up two heading towards quarter-time.
Bowie added four points more before the break too and Lakeside was up 63-57.
Ben Lee nailed two big shots from three-point territory to start the fourth term to help Lakeside to a 14-point lead as they completed a run of 18 straight points either side of three quarter-time to go from down four to up 14.
It was then a matter of the margin with both teams knowing the magical number for the Lightning to advance at the expense of the Redbacks was 14.
The Lightning led by 19 when Nick Palleschi scored and were still up 19 a couple of more occasions, and still by 18 before Nelson hit a three for the Redbacks and Joel Wagner scored inside.
That cut it back to 13 and meant the Redbacks were back in fourth spot. But Isenbarger scored again for Lakeside to make it a 15-point game and that’s where it stayed until the Lightning had possession from the side out of a timeout with no shot clock left.
They couldn’t get the ball inbounds though. The Redbacks forced the turnover and then it was their ball and all they had to do was score and fourth position was theirs.
They got a good look too with a drive and dish to Nikora, but he couldn’t knock down his third triple of the night and the Lightning won by 15 and booked in a finals spot.
Redbacks coach CJ Jackson was actually happy with the look they got on the last play to give themselves a chance.
“Ezra had been knocking down shots too relatively for the whole game so I think for us to drive and dish like we did, and have that shot wide open, well I think at the end of the day it was a great shot that we created. It just didn’t come off,” Jackson said.
“The play was for a wide open shot too and that’s what we got. That’s why we try to tell the players when they are training that when you train you shoot shots like you are in a game every single shot.
“You have to make sure, and this is for all the youth out there, you might only get one shot in a game so when you train you have to make sure you are ready to make that one shot count.”
Jay Bowie ended the night with 25 points, seven rebounds, three assists and two steals for Lakeside on 10/27 shooting from the field even though he did go just 3/15 from three-point territory.
Jack Isenbarger also delivered 23 points, four assists, three rebounds and two steals on 5/11 shooting from deep with Andrew Ferguson producing 13 points and 14 boards off the bench.
Ben Lee also had nine points for the Lightning, Josh Davey six points and 12 rebounds, and Michael Vigor six points, six boards and four assists in his first game as a 30-year-old.
Daniels was proud of the effort post-match especially to turn around a tough first half.
“I’m so proud of our guys and again we are trying to build for next year, and obviously I would have preferred us to play well the whole way but with the future in mind, it’s almost better the way it worked out,” Daniels said.
“We played awful in the first half when we shot 18 per cent from the three-point line even though they were good shots and we had 12 turnovers. I think we had more turnovers than field goals in that first half.
“So to be able to fight back when Jay didn’t play well in the first half and for him to come back, and finish the way that he did and with how Jack played, I’m just really proud of those guys.”
The finals had virtually started early for the Lightning the week before with crucial matches away to the Wolves and at home to the Senators even before Saturday’s do-or-die clash with the Redbacks, and Daniels is grateful for the experience the West Coast Classic is providing.
“The one last Friday was the playoff game for us, Saturday wasn’t as much but to go down by 27 was costly for us with the tie-breaker system they are using for this competition,” Daniels said.
“To be honest it isn’t the right way to do that and I think I can say that because we made it anyway, but if we had won by 13 points tonight we would have beaten the teams in second, third and fourth, and been on the same record as two of them and not made the playoffs.
“I think that would have been a shame and what it does is hurts the development. There’s two important things in this league, the first is sportsmanship and we are great with that, but then there’s development and when the season comes down to points it can stop you playing younger players because you can’t afford to lose the percentage.
“We’ve had some big margins as a result in this competition and that’s not what the SBL or WCC should be about. I hope they do learn something from that as well because this is a great league and I’m so thankful for BWA for putting it together. They’ve done a great job, it’s fantastic and we are super thankful to be playing but that doesn’t mean things can’t be improved on.”
While Daniels was delighted with Lakeside’s second half, Jackson was far from happy with what his Redbacks produced after half-time with their season on the line.
“I feel that we did well defensively in the first half, I felt that we let ourselves down in the second half defensively, though, and we did some not so smart things as far as making fouls,” Jackson said.
“That didn’t allow us to set our defence up and we made some stupid fouls, and I didn’t think we sprinted back on defence as much as we did in the first half. To be honest I think we shot ourselves in the foot quite a few times in the second half which led to them building that lead.
“The captain actually said in the huddle that we need to hold these guys on this possession because they needed to win by 14 points to go ahead of us.
“But when it came down to it, even at that we probably should have fouled on that play and made them take the ball out of bounds again rather than get a shot. That’s the sort of thing we need to learn from and be smarter at.”
Marshall Nelson finished his outstanding West Coast Classic with another 27 points and seven rebounds for the Redbacks but his nine turnovers and four fouls did hurt. He shot 5/11 from three-poitn land, though, and his block on Jay Bowie was phenomenal.
Caleb White added 14 points and four rebounds for the Redbacks, Kyden Edman 11 points, four rebounds and three assists on 3/5 from long-range, Joel Wagner nine points, nine assists, five rebounds and five assists, and Ezra Nikora six points and three boards.
Jackson didn’t make it a focus pre-game of what the Redbacks needed to reach the finals, he just wanted to let them go out and play, let the cards fall where they may and then ultimately he’ll judge the group on their West Coast Classic campaigns as he plans for 2021.
“We never talked before the game about where we were at. I think most players knew we were in third but I don’t think players really knew what we had to do to secure fourth spot,” Jackson said.
“To be honest, during this whole cup, we never went over no video and never scouted or anything, we just let the boys go out and play because of the situation. We just wanted them to play and see what we have, and we can build on that for next year.
“I know this is a great comp and I think the competition was fantastic, and it allowed players and teams to actually see where they were at with their local talent. That’s what I feel.
“Now some of the local talent did well and some of the local talent still needs to learn where they’re at as far as understanding where they sit in the context of the league. But that’s what this was for.”
WEST COAST CLASSIC 2020 – MEN
Willetton Tigers 81 defeated Cockburn Cougars 74
Geraldton Buccaneers 82 defeated South West Slammers 46
Goldfields Giants 96 defeated East Perth Eagles 79
Cockburn Cougars 82 lost to Perry Lakes Hawks 112
Lakeside Lightning 84 defeated Perth Redbacks 69
Warwick Senators 126 defeated Rockingham Flames 94
Joondalup Wolves 97 defeated Willetton Tigers 95
Mandurah Magic 77 lost to Kalamunda Eastern Suns 79