The Taranaki Mountain Airs were left thinking "what if" after the Southland Sharks scored an agonising last second 83-81 win in an exciting finish to their national league game in New Plymouth on Saturday night.
The Good Home Mountain Airs led the defending champions for most of the game but failed to close out the match after running into foul trouble in the final quarter.
When Airs import Adrian Oliver and captain Aaron Bailey Nowell fouled out with five minutes left on the clock, the momentum swung to the Sharks.
The scores were locked 18-18 after a tight first quarter. The Airs came out in the second quarter and dominated with Brad Anderson, Oliver and big man Suleiman Braimoh finding the hoop with some tough shots to take the Sharks out of their comfort zone.
The third quarter was more of the same, the Airs stretching their lead to 30 points heading into the final stretch.
Most of the crowd of about 1200 at the TSB Stadium thought the Airs were on their way to scoring the upset of the round. But the final five minutes were nervous times for Airs fans who were on their feet willing on their team.
The Sharks continued to claw back the deficit, the visitors getting their noses in front 79-78 on the scoreboard with 28 seconds left on the clock.
The crowd erupted when Braimoh levelled the scores 81-81 with a shot from outside the arc with 3.6 seconds remaining.
But the excitement was short-lived as Sharks point guard Luke Martin hit the winning basket on the buzzer.
Confusion reigned afterwards while referees checked with the timekeeper that Martin had shot the ball before the buzzer sounded, which they deemed he had.
"I think we're all gutted,' said Airs head coach Daryn Shaw, who couldn't hide his disappointment after the game.
"I thought there was a good lesson in that we're quite reliant on certain [senior] players, but in saying that I thought it was a great learning curve for us all," he said.
Shaw said when the two Airs players were fouled out it put rookies in the team in a difficult position in trying to close the game out.
"I'm certainly not pointing at any one of those kids because they have never been in that sort of position in a game of this standard."
Shaw admitted in the final stretch the Airs turned the ball over "quite a bit" feeding the Sharks' momentum.
"That's something we need to work on," he said.
Shaw was proud of the way his team had played against a genuine top four side that has serious funding.
"I think we've proved we're a legitimate team and I think Southland would say that.
"It was our inexperience at crucial times that cost us.
"But for most of the game we were really good and placed our will on the Sharks. I'm proud of the team."
Sharks coach Paul Henare was happy his team had turned around a 30-point deficit and said the effort was "one of the best comebacks I've ever been a part of as a coach. I would prefer not to find myself in that position again," he quipped.
Brian Conklin had 25 points and eight rebounds, while Leon Henry made crucial threes and free-throws down the stretch.
The Mountain Airs head to Invercargill this week for a rematch against the Sharks.
SOUTHLAND SHARKS 83 (Brian Conklin 25, Kevin Braswell 17, Martin Luke 15, Henry Leon 15)
TARANAKI MOUNTAIN AIRS 81 (Suleiman Braimoh 27, Adrian Oliver 21, Brad Anderson 21).
- Taranaki Daily News
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