Once, twice, three times a champion.
The NZ Breakers completed an historic title three-peat in the Australian NBL, making a clean sweep of the post-season with a dramatic 70-66 victory over the Perth Wildcats to close out the grand final in brilliant style.
In front of 13,527 rabid, red-clad fans at the Perth fortress that was supposed to be inpenetrable, the Breakers showed all the champion qualities that have established them firmly as New Zealand's premier sporting franchise.
They had to withstand a furious finish from the home side, who have now lost the last two grand finals to their Kiwi rivals, but they held firm in a pulsating final minute to seal a famous victory behind two ice-cool free-throws from veteran CJ Bruton with nine seconds remaining.
Bruton was magnificent, as he so often is at this time of the year, leading the Breakers with a game-high 16 points off the bench. He made five of his nine field goals, including four of his five attempts from beyond the arc, to deliver a game-winning turn after a quiet opener.
He has now won an incredible six ANBL titles.
Two other Breakers stepped up hugely on the big occasion.
Cedric Jackson, after a quiet first half, was clutch over the run home as he contributed 14 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals. He made just six of his 17 shots but he came up trumps when the game went on the line over the run home, and was later named finals MVP to go with his regular season award.
Daryl Corletto had another big-time outing too, following on from his heroics of game one. He finished with 11 points (3/8 FG, 2/5 3PT) and also managed to get under the skin of Wildcats star Kevin Lisch over a tempestuous second half.
Tom Abercrombie added six points and 11 rebounds for the three-time champions, Alex Pledger had eight points and seven boards, and Will Hudson had eight points and four rebounds in a game where neither team shot the ball well, but both played as hard as they possibly could.
The Wildcats had looked dead and buried at the end of the third quarter - down 11 - but came charging home on the back of their pressing defence to nearly steal a famous victory.
When Lisch and Jesse Wagstaff made back-to-back triples midway through the final quarter the home side trailed by just two points, and had every chance as the decibel went through the roof in this huge stadium.
But the Breakers continued to make the big plays when they were needed. Pledger made a block, Jackson a steal and somehow amidst it all the Kiwi club kept their noses in front in a manic finish.
The Cats had their chances at the end, but Rhys Carter could not make a triple, nor Redhage a fadeaway in the lane, that would have levelled the game, and the Breakers made the free-throws that were needed to nail the threepeat.
Redhage and Lisch scored 14 pointa apiece for the Wildcats and Wagstaff added 10.
Neither team shot well - the Breakers went at 34 percent from the floor, the Cats 33 percent - but both played with tremendous intensity and delivered a fitting spectacle to bring the curtain down on the season.
The first half ended with the scores tied at 29-29, which was a bit like watching a nil-all half in football. Close, but not exactly enthralling.
The opening quarter was jittery, to say the least, from both sides, with neither settling into anything resembling an offensive rhythm. Apart from Breakers veteran CJ Bruton who came off the bench and made his only two shots - both triples - to provide some much needed impetus for the visitors who led 19-18 at the first break.
But the Breakers started the second period ice cold and made just a single bucket over the first five minutes as the Cats stormed into a 26-21 lead that got the big home crowd excited, to say the least.
The Breakers, though, stemmed the bleeding in time and reeled in the hosts over the run in to the major break. Both teams staggered, rather than swaggered, into the sheds as the shots kept clunking out, the turnovers kept coming and this building's reputation as a shooters' graveyard firmed.
The Wildcats shot just 27 percent from the floor for the half, and made just two of 10 from deep, continuing their brick-laying form from Auckland. The visitors were only marginally better, dropping 33 percent of their field goals and three of their 11 attempts from long range.
The Breakers edged second-chance points (10-2) and points off turnovers (11-3), but the Cats stayed in it by converting nine of their 10 free-throw attempts and limiting their rivals to just four trips to the line, where they converted two.
The third quarter was positively explosive, with Corletto and Lisch twice going at it in pushing matches, the second of which led to the Breakers earning four free-throws and possession as things threatened to get out of hand.
But it was the champs who kept their cool in a heated quarter, Jackson finally getting things going to the hoop, Will Hudson establishing some nice position inside and Bruton and Corletto chipping in with big-time triples as the lead grew to 11 and remained there (54-43) at the final break.
Of course there was a Wildcats run coming. Everyone in this packed house knew uit. Damn, the Breakers probably even knew it.
Sure enough midway through the final period Perth cranked things up big time. Vukona fouled out, Lisch and Wagstaff made back-to-back triples and suddenly it was a two-point game (59-57) with the best part of five minutes still remaining.
However the Breakers have some very special qualities and they called on them when they were needed, and joined the Sydney Kings as the only club to win a three-peat of league titles.
And Dillon Boucher bowed out at this level of the game in the most fitting fashion.
NZ Breakers 70 (CJ Bruton 16, Cedric Jackson 14, Daryl Corletto 11) Perth Wildcats 66 (Kevin Lisch 14, Shawn Redhage 14, Jesse Wagstaff 10). 1Q: 19-18; HT: 29-29; 3Q: 54-43.
(NZ Breakers win series 2-0)
- © Fairfax NZ News