Saints coach Heal nets his first championship
The Wellington Saints' gorilla mascot was harder to shake, but Shane Heal has got a sizeable monkey off his back.
One of Australia's greatest players, Heal had found success harder to come by as a coach since his first gig with the South Dragons in 2006.
Until Saturday night that is, as Heal's Saints locked down defensively in the fourth quarter of the National Basketball League final to beat Hawke's Bay 85-69 and add an eighth championship banner to the TSB Bank Arena rafters.
Heal follows in the footsteps of predecessor Pero Cameron, another great player who tasted success in his first year as Saints coach.
"It's my first championship as a coach," said a relieved Heal as the champagne started flowing.
"A lot of people in Australia said 'why would you go to New Zealand?' I don't care whether it's in Australia, America, Europe or New Zealand, I'm just so happy that we were able to get it done with this group. The experience of it, going through all of the things that we went through this year, is only going to help me become a better coach. I'm thankful for the opportunity."
After a turbulent season, Heal credited the championship to a team honesty session last month.
With new imports Brandon Bowman and Bryan Davis on board, the Saints were able to snap out of a mid-season malaise and finish on a six-game winning streak when it mattered most.
"We all sat down and opened our hearts up and understood what we had to do to be able to succeed. I'm just so proud of these guys because they stuck with it and believed in each other when a lot of people tried to put the boot into us during the year.
"Each week we just kept getting better, we were training better, our mindset was better and we developed a belief. I felt so confident coming into this weekend that we were going to get it done."
Heal was on a one-season contract with the Saints and flew out of Wellington yesterday for a well-earned holiday in Queensland.
After parting ways with the Sydney Kings earlier this year, "The Hammer" is now a free agent coaching gun for hire.
"I've got an open mind about where I'm going. I've had a fair bit of contact about the future and over the next month or two I'll work out which way I'm going to go."
The Saints got contributions from throughout their deep and talented squad on Saturday.
As per usual, league MVP Corey Webster led the scoring with 22 points, including a pair of dagger threes to break Hawks' hearts in the fourth quarter.
Final Four MVP Lindsay Tait had 19 points on 7/9 shooting, the versatile Bowman set the tone with 20 points and seven rebounds, while fellow American Davis had the unusual stat-line of one point and 17 rebounds.
Then there were the local favourites: scrappy co-captain Damien Ekenasio hauled in nine boards while schoolboy Izayah Mauriohooho-Le'afa knocked down two treys and joined father George - one of Heal's assistants - as an NBL champion.
"Man, this is the reason I came out here," Bowman said. "I like everything about this organisation, everything about this country. I'm just real happy right now. Corey's as good as anyone on the offensive end that I've seen, and I've been all around the world. What he does on the offensive end is very special. He has one of the best shots I've ever seen."