All memories of last week's fumbling and stumbling were erased as Nelson handed Otago just the second loss of their National Basketball League season, 87-82, in Nelson tonight.
A week ago, the Giants looked badly out of synch against Hawke's Bay, a team which lost their final grip on a playoff lifeline when they were beaten by Manawatu this evening. It was a refocused and revitalised Nelson side this week, as they butted heads for 40 minutes with the runaway league leaders from Dunedin.
The Nuggets had built an 11-1 record before tonight's match and it was not hard to see why. Guided astutely by veteran point guard Mark Dickel, the big, physical Otago team have threats at all five positions and two former Tall Blacks in Hayden Allen and and Brendon Polyblank coming off the bench.
But Nelson responded in the best way possible, Mika Vukona, Josh Pace and Erron Maxey matching the physicality and adding a little extra accuracy in the game's final minutes.
Nelson led 25-19 after the first quarter but got the shakes in the second, turning the ball over seven times as both imports, Pace and Maxey, were on the bench. Otago pounced and put on an 18-6 run that saw them out to their biggest lead of the game at 37-31.
The Giants drew back within a basket by halftime and the sides went neck and neck through the third quarter, a period in which Vukona and Beny [crrct] Anthony matched muscle for muscle and move for move.
In the last 10 minutes, it was almost impossible to separate the teams, although Allen gave Nelson the shakes when he drained three-pointers on consecutive trips to initially tie the scores, then put Otago three clear.
Needing an answer, Pace made some key plays, earning Nelson enough breathing space to be able to pick their moments on offence. A commitment to driving hard to the basket, where Vukona and Maxey were a handful, earned Nelson chances from the free throw line while guard Brook Ruscoe made a cool, calm and collected jump shot inside the final minute.
Otago were not done, Dickel scoring his first points of the match with a tough drive with seconds to go, but Nelson's defence and their rebounding held firm for a significant victory.
With a less than a month left until the finals weekend in Hawke's Bay, Otago, Wellington and Nelson are in the driving seat with Southland looming as the fourth semifinalists.
Nelson Giants 87 (Josh Pace 22, Mika Vukona 20, Erron Maxey 18, Brook Ruscoe 12) Otago Nuggets 82 (Beny Anthony 24, Akeem Wright 17, Antoine Tisby 14, Hayden Allen 11). 1Q: 25-19, HT: 41-43, 64-63
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