Hard grind pays off for the NZ Breakers
The comeback kings have done it again, with the New Zealand Breakers riding home on the late-game heroics of Tom Abercrombie to complete a clean sweep of their quartet of holiday season road games.
For the second time in four Aussie NBL games the Breakers had to mount a serious second-half comeback as they overcame a 15-point halftime deficit to pip the Townsville Crocodiles 82-78 at The Swamp for a fifth straight victory.
The win, which snapped the Crocs' win streak at five, solidifies the Breakers' competition lead at 13-3. Their sweep of four straight road games since their December 28 visit to Adelaide marks the first time they've achieved the feat.
"We're finding way to win on the road during this stretch," noted Abercrombie after the game. "It hasn't been pretty at times but we've kept grinding and we've come up with some big buckets at the end."
The Breakers had a lot to thank Abercrombie for as the Tall Blacks small forward produced his most telling performance of the season.
He finished with a team-high 19 points on nine-of-15 shooting, but it was the way the springy jump-shooter took the game over in the final three minutes that suggested he may have turned a significant corner in his comeback from that bothersome ankle injury.
The Breakers had trailed by seven inside the final four minutes, before a Will Hudson dunk got them within five.
Then Abercrombie took over, making four straight jumpers to rattle off nine consecutive points that propelled the Kiwi club to another notable victory.
"We've had to go through different things and we've found different ways to win," said coach Andrej Lemanis.
"In Adelaide we were down 21 at the half and found a way to win. In Wollongong last week there were 22 lead changes and 10 ties, and we found a way to win.
"With that comes a confidence that no matter what's going on, if you keep playing a certain way you're going to give yourself at least a chance to get back in the game and win it.
"This group has been together a while and has experienced success together. That builds a belief that you're never out of it."
Abercrombie and his backup at small forward, Leon Henry, provided the two key offensive parts of the Breakers' latest comeback equation.
Henry's back to back triples at the end of the third quarter were huge momentum changers as the Breakers halved a 12-point deficit in the final minute.
"It was huge for Leon to make those threes at the end of the third, and to see Tommy close out the game the way he did was outstanding for his confidence, and good to see him doing that again," said assistant coach Dean Vickerman.
"We ran some plays for Tom at the end, and Mika [Vukona] set some fantastic screens to get him open. You could just see the change in him as a person. He was running around confident. We need him to be like that during the playoff period."
Vickerman described the victory as "hugely important" as the Breakers continue to keep their noses ahead of the pursuing Perth Wildcats at the top end of the table.
"We put a pretty big focus on these four games to try and get them all. Some people were talking about three out of four. But we expect to go and win every game.
"We're halfway through this heavy stretch right now, and we've got another three games in a week and a-half. We've just got to freshen these guys up and make sure they're ready for Thursday (at home against Wollongong) and Sunday (at Adelaide)."
It wasn't just the Abercrombie and Henry show in Townsville. Cedric Jackson (10 points, 10 boards, eight assists and three steals) had his usual stats-stuffer; the two-headed centre combination of Hudson and Alex Pledger combined for 20 points and 17 rebounds; and Mika Vukona (eight points, eight boards, five assists) and Dillon Boucher both made some big plays.
But on a night where the Breakers were outshot (the Crocs went 54 percent for the game; the Kiwis 43), a huge rebounding advantage (44-18) was crucial in providing a much-needed possession edge for the visitors.
"Our rebounding was outstanding again," noted Vickerman. "If we keep winning that much possession we can win games shooting at 43 percent. There was a huge commitment from everybody on the boards tonight."
Winning has become a habit at this hugely successful club.
Long may it continue.
Townsville Crocs 78 (Gary Ervin 29, Luke Nevill 20, Michael Cedar 11, Todd Blanchfield 10), NZ Breakers 82 (Tom Abercrombie 19, Cedric Jackson 10, Alex Pledger 10, Will Hudson 10). 1Q: 23-16; HT: 45-30; 3Q: 65-59.