The Wellington Saints clinched the regular season title and booked home advantage for the playoffs with a gutsy, come-from-behind 78-74 win over the Waikato Pistons in Hamilton last night.
Lindsay Tait (22 points) was outstanding for the Saints and the point guard's pair of free throws iced the win with three seconds left on the clock.
Two-time defending champions Waikato dominated the first half and led by 15 points at one stage but the Saints dug deep and hit the lead for the first time with one minute to play.
"We were average throughout the game but we had a pretty good second half," Saints coach Pero Cameron said.
"Lindsay played really well and our other guys, Leon [Henry], Erron [Maxey] coming off the bench, they all contributed and they played in a way that was desperate.
"We quickened the game up and they played well. They're athletes and that's what they're good at. Erron and Leon played exceptionally well for us. I thought Lindsay was great and everyone contributed."
The Pistons had shot out of the blocks to gain an 8-0 lead but the Saints fought back to trail by just one after a low-scoring first quarter.
Tempers then frayed during a scuffle in the second quarter after a hard Thomas Abercrombie foul on Tait.
But Waikato kept their focus and extended their lead to 42-30 at halftime before big third quarters from import forwards Marcel Jones and Maxey helped the Saints claw within six points at three-quarter time, and eventually take the lead.
The playoffs for teams ranked from third to sixth will be played next Tuesday and Wednesday with the Saints and Waikato hosting those winners in the semifinals on Friday.
"We're both in the semis and there's a couple of other teams to make up that final four," Cameron said.
"There's Hawke's Bay, Nelson, Harbour and we've lost to them all. It remains to be seen who the No 6 team will be but it's going to be tough."
While typically understated, Cameron, who won four championships with Waikato, admitted it was good to finish top.
"It's always good when you get home court advantage, but it's what you do with it that matters."
Star Saints import Eric Devendorf was again sidelined last night but Cameron hoped the American shooting guard could shake the effects of his high ankle sprain and suit up in the playoffs.
"We'll see," Cameron said. "I want him to play because he's a great player and I think he fits into the team really good. Hopefully. he can, we'll see in our next training at the weekend."
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