The post-game crowds around Phill Jones didn't dwindle for a full 30 minutes. It seemed everyone in Saxton Stadium realised they had just shared something a little bit special.
Last night's 101-89 win over the Southland Sharks was Jones's last game in a Nelson Giants basketball uniform on his home floor, some 368 games after his first in 1993.
The veteran guard officially - perhaps prematurely - ended his Nelson career with a handy 21 points, as if to remind the capacity crowd that Phill fills buckets like no other Kiwi player. He will lead the team next week in Wellington when the Giants take their place in the NBL Final Four but, seemingly, that's it for his home fans.
He was honoured with a haka from team-mates, opposing players and Wanderers Rugby Club members and had his playing number officially retired by the Giants, the only Nelson player to be respected in that way.
But the job is not done for the 40-year-old.
The Giants had already secured their place in the playoffs before last night's game so the win over Southland was about "i" dotting and "t" crossing. The Sharks, especially, seemed to have one eye on next week as they rested starters and ran their reserves.
The 12-point win margin gave the Giants a countback advantage over Southland and vaulted them up the ladder into a semifinal against Wellington's Saints next Friday. They can travel to the capital with confidence.
The American 1-2 punch of forward Jamal Boykin and guard Josh Pace are in great touch and the likes of Jones, Josh Bloxham, Mika Vukona, Brook Ruscoe and Finn Delany rode their wave in solid supporting roles.
Jones is confident the Giants can do some damage next weekend.
"It's a nice squad, we're starting to hit our straps at just the right time," he said. "We've narrowed our focus in the last few weeks and concentrated on getting ourselves right, less about the other teams or the refs. We are really beginning to feel comfortable with the parts we have."
Boykin, last night's leading scorer, was named the season's Most Valuable Player in his first campaign with the Giants. There must have been just a heartbeat between him and Pace.
"Those guys, it could have been a dual MVP and no one would have been surprised," Jones said. "They have been the backbone and the rest of us are doing our best to fit around that."
The Giants, led by their supercharged superannuitant, jumped on the makeshift Sharks side from the outset, Jones getting a huge cheer when he made a three-pointer for Nelson's first lead of the game.
Pace and Boykin formed a testing tandem, Pace rebounding and attacking in transition while Boykin's footwork and face-up jumpshot befuddled his Sharks markers.
Nelson led 28-20 after the first period but yielded all of that advantage early in the second, Southland tying the game at 28 before Jones made another three to get the Giants going again. Southland forward Brian Conklin, a team-mate of Pace in Townsville over summer, grafted hard around the basket and guard Kevin Braswell kept taking shots, even making some, to keep their side in the contest, trailing 49-42 at halftime.
The Giants had the better of the game after the break, outscoring the visitors 52-47 but there were moments, especially as Luke Martin was making three-point shots, when it seemed the Sharks were about to poop on Phill's party.
A 22-point lead at 94-72 was pared away quickly but Ruscoe made an open three-pointer and Jones found time for one last basket before Nelson coach Liam Flynn subbed him with 28sec to play, allowing the Nelson crowd to salute a player who has almost become a part of the furniture.
Boykin, who has already played in eight countries in his professional career, had mixed emotions after the game.
"I really loved how this organisation cared for Phill, the whole league has been very respectful, wherever we have gone," he said.
"We're building good momentum, winning our last three and we feel we will be hot going into the finals.
"But that's it, man, the finals next week. This season has been so short and I look up here tonight and realise my time here is running down and that's going to mean leaving.
"I think we need to send a message next weekend, JP [Pace], myself and all these Giants players to show how much we feel for the Nelson fans."
Boykin's 29 was the game high but Pace was busy with 23 and nine rebounds, Jones had 21, while Vukona added 12 boards in just 21min. Delany, named the Giants' young player of the year, chipped in seven points and six rebounds.
Saints await next Friday at 8.30pm, live on SKY TV. Jones, fittingly, has the last word a week out from the finals.
- The Nelson Mail
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