Saints outshine Giants to reach NBL title game
All they needed was the big stage.
The star-studded Wellington Saints, mediocre at times this season, turned it on when it really counted in wiping the Nelson Giants 89-71 to advance to the National Basketball League grand final last night.
Shane Heal's side hit the Giants between the eyes with the opening punch and, despite some late jitters, a near flawless first half helped them set up a date with Hawke's Bay in the decider tonight.
The Saints led by 22 at halftime of the semifinal and 24 early in the third quarter before the Giants fought back to honour Phill Jones in the final game of the 40-year-old's illustrious career.
Jones finished with 12 points and fittingly his last shot was a three-pointer with a minute left.
The "Reefton Kid" checked out for the last time with 2.4 seconds on the clock and the appreciative TSB Bank Arena crowd rose as one to give the sweet-shooting southpaw the send-off he richly deserved.
Earlier, the Saints clearly relished the television cameras and big crowd, playing an electric brand of team basketball in the first half.
Big, bad Bryan Davis - who had been struggling to find his feet in New Zealand - was imposing his physical will, tongue out, fist pumping as he led the Saints emotionally.
Corey Webster, his confidence boosted by being named league MVP before tip-off, was at his sweet shooting best, while back-court mate Lindsay Tait played ringmaster as the Saints made amends for last year's semifinal flop against Southland.
The one-sided first half was exacerbated by Nelson stars Josh Pace and Mika Vukona falling into early foul trouble, and it was those two veterans that briefly made a game of it in the fourth quarter with some crafty plays, cutting the lead to nine at one stage.
But it was one of the Saints' unsung heroes, the versatile Dion Prewster, that steadied the ship, grabbing some crucial offensive rebounds and hitting big shots as the Nelson challenge faded.
Tait and Webster led the Saints' scoring with 19 points apiece, with co-captain Tait adding 11 assists and six rebounds in an excellent all-round display of point guard play.
Prewster had 14 points on 6/9 shooting to go with seven rebounds, while BJ Anthony chipped in with 13 points and nine boards.
Pace led the Giants with a game-high 26 points but their chances were hurt severely by a quiet performance from all-star forward Jamal Boykin, held to just six points on 2/11 shooting.
Davis' defence had a big part to play in that.
It sets up a rematch of the 2011 final won by the Saints - although that time the Hawks were missing inspirational captain Paora Winitana.
Winitana, a Mormon, does not play on Sunday's but the NBL has shifted the title decider to a Saturday night showdown this year.
The 37-year-old was a standout in last night's earlier 100-87 semifinal win over the defending champion Southland Sharks, scoring an efficient 24 points on 11/19 shooting, while playing stout defence and throwing his still-chiselled body on the floor for loose balls.
AT A GLANCE
Wellington Saints 89 (Lindsay Tait, Corey Webster 19, Dion Prewster 14) Nelson Giants 71 (Josh Pace 26, Phill Jones 12) 1Q: 28-15, HT: 54-32, 3Q: 71-56
The Dominion Post