With the rise of the NZ Breakers, the National Basketball League tends to fly under the radar.
But the league dished up a more than worthy grand final product in Wellington tonight, as the hometown Saints chalked up their eighth championship in a 85-69 defeat of the top-seeded Bay Hawks.
Tab Baldwin's well-coached Hawks fought manfully in an entertaining, high quality decider but in the end were overwhelmed by sheer talent, as Shane Heal took the honours in his first season at the helm.
Credit to former Aussie star Heal, who remained calm and confident throughout a rocky season in which long-time owner Nick Mills had threatened to sell if the club didn't crack the playoffs.
All the usual Saints suspects stepped up: league MVP Corey Webster with a team-high 22 points, versatile import Brandon Bowman with 20, and Final Four MVP Lindsay Tait did his usual thing with an efficient 19.
Bryan Davis, the fifth import used by the Saints in a rollercoaster season, was a beast on the boards.
The Texan Terror scored just one point but his game-high 17 rebounds helped the hosts to a decisive 45-33 overall advantage.
The Saints led by two after one quarter and three at halftime - an edge they held going into the final term before finishing over the top.
The two clubs took very different routes to get here.
The Hawks were training together throughout summer and, despite a lack of star-power, maintained a settled squad and rolled to a franchise-best 15-3 record.
The Saints, meanwhile, are packed with big names that were thrown together at late notice, as Heal cut three imports and endured a mid-season slump before finding the right balance.
As they did in their semifinal win over Nelson, the Saints flew out of the blocks and racked up an early 16-4 lead.
With 10 apiece, Webster and Bowman combined to score the first 20 Saints' points.
But they failed to score at all in the second quarter, and the Hawks were able to claw their way back through their talented lefties Everard Bartlett (23 points) and Dustin Scott (15).
The Hawks took the lead briefly in the third quarter but were unable to sustain their high intensity, pressure defence throughout the fourth as Webster drove a dagger through their hearts with a pair of corner threes.
Attention now turns to the Tall Blacks' home series against Korea, with a 24-man squad assembling for trials in Auckland next week.
AT A GLANCE
Wellington Saints 85 (Corey Webster 22, Brandon Bowman 20, Lindsay Tait 19) Hawke's Bay 69 (Everard Bartlett 23, Dustin Scott 15, Jarrod Kenny 10) 1Q: 22-20, HT: 39-36, 3Q: 62-59
- The Dominion Post
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