Veteran Hawke's Bay captain Paora Winitana has inspired his side to the National Basketball League grand final - and this time he'll get to play.
The 37-year-old forward was a standout in tonight's 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.
The former Tall Black missed the Hawks' 2011 grand final loss to the Wellington Saints because of his Mormon faith.
That time the title decider was played on a Sunday but the NBL final has shifted to a Saturday night showdown this year.
Winitana's presence is a major boost for the Tab Baldwin-coached side, who were the runaway regular season champs with a franchise-best 15-3 record.
While it wasn't easy, they lived up to their favourites tag with an impressive team performance: their lack of star-power compensated for with an innate understanding of NBL coach of the year Baldwin's systems.
Southland led by one after the first quarter, the Hawks were up two at halftime, before Baldwin's boys produced a decisive 25-16 third term win to set them on their way.
Hawks' Tall Blacks hopeful Everard Bartlett also impressed with 24 points as national coach Nenad Vucinic watched on at Wellington's TSB Bank Arena ahead of next week's trials in Auckland.
While the Sharks were gutted to relinquish their title, they can hold their heads high.
Few expected Paul Henare's team to even reach the playoffs after four of their better players were scrubbed out mid-season: Reuben Te Rangi, Leon Henry and Shea Ili facing assault charges and Gareth Dawson testing positive for a banned substance.
Henare, who retired before the mid-season crisis, dusted off his tracksuit for his 251st NBL appearance, but a lack of depth showed as the Hawks pulled away in the second half.
The Hawks will play the winner of tonight's second semifinal between the second-seeded Saints and the Nelson Giants.
Southland's scoring load was predictably carried by Tai Wesley, Kevin Braswell (both 20 points) and Brian Conklin (15), but the latter two won't be thrilled with their efforts.
Wesley, the Guam international forward, roared out of the blocks with 13 first quarter points but couldn't maintain the rage.
Braswell was bottled up until the fourth quarter and hit just six of 19 shots, while Conklin missed some looks he'd normally finish in his sleep, finishing five of 15.
Saints shooting guard Corey Webster was named league MVP following a season in which he averaged 26.5 points per game and hit 44.8 per cent of his three-point attempts.
The all-star five was Webster, Super City guard Jason Cadee, Hawke's Bay forward Dustin Scott, Nelson forward Jamal Boykin and Taranaki forward Suleiman Braimoh.
AT A GLANCE
Hawke's Bay 100 (Paora Winitana, Everard Bartlett 24, Marco Alexander 15) Southland 87 (Tai Wesley, Kevin Braswell 20, Brian Conklin 15) 1Q: 24-25, HT: 46-44, 3Q: 71-60
- The Dominion Post
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