Wellington Saints perfect until the end in historic undefeated season
Kevin Braswell's message at the start of the final quarter of the Wellington Saints' season was to go out and perfect the game of basketball.
Up 16 against the Southland Sharks in the National Basketball League final, the title was essentially in hand and with it, the first undefeated NBL season.
But that wasn't enough for Braswell. He wanted a show put on and he got one as the Saints poured on 34 points to end with a 108-75 win.
"I said to them after the third quarter 'look, you can let them hang around and bring it back to under 10 if you want to, or we can perfect basketball and show the country of New Zealand some of the best basketball that they've ever seen played'.
"That happened in the fourth quarter. These guys went out and just did it."
That relentlessness was the hallmark of their 20-0 season.
Not since they beat Southland 88-86 in Invercargill in their third game of the season has a team finished within eight points of them in a game.
Their star-studded roster, which won eight of the 11 individual league awards, helped, but every team has an off night here and there, and it was Braswell's job to keep them going through the season.
"I tell you one thing, the Saints have been great to me and my family since I've arrived here. They've blessed me with some really good teams, great players, and I just helped build a culture where everyone came in and was happy every day.
"Honestly, I kind of took that from watching [NBA team] Golden State over the last few years. I remember when [coach] Steve Kerr first came in and took over the team and it just looked like those guys were having fun.
"I just wanted to make sure the guys had a friendly, happy environment where the guys didn't feel like they were coming into work every day."
Now that the season is finished, uncertainty hangs over the franchise, with chief executive Nick Mills mulling over his future. That means Braswell doesn't have a contract for next year. Some advisors have told him he should move on to bigger things, but he said he would love to come back for a three-peat.
"Who knows what will happen, he [Mills] might not have a team next year. Maybe he will, maybe he won't, but just to close it the way that we did is unreal.
"As long as we're going down as the best team in NBL history, I love hearing that."
As for the celebrations, well Braswell said the players went up large, but he and assistant coach Zico Coronel had a relatively early night.
"I know the guys had a big night, you had to after that. For me, I'm still tired," he said on Sunday night.
"Zico and I were up all night after we beat Canterbury [in Friday's semifinal] preparing for Southland. He told me to go to sleep at one point because we were falling asleep sitting up."
Not even the Auckland fog could dampen the players' jubilant mood.
With the team flying back from Tauranga via Auckland on Sunday, the closure of Auckland Airport meant they had to take a bus to Auckland before flying home, but most of the players were said to be planning to extend the celebrations into a second night.
THE ROAD TO PERFECTION
Hawke's Bay Hawks (home) 107-84
Canterbury Rams (away) 94-85
Southland Sharks (away) 88-86
Hawke's Bay Hawks (away) 102-91
Taranaki Mountainairs (away) 100-87
Canterbury Rams (home) 114-104
Southland Sharks (home) 111-93
Canterbury Rams (home) 102-79
Supercity Rangers (home) 103-67
Nelson Giants (home) 110-84
Supercity Rangers (home) 98-87
Taranaki Mountainairs (home) 94-76
Southland Sharks (home) 109-94
Taranaki Mountainairs (away) 91-63
Nelson Giants (away) 95-78
Supercity Rangers (away) 106-95
Hawke's Bay Hawks (away) 98-90
Nelson Giants (away) 82-67
Semifinal: Canterbury Rams (neutral) 94-73
Final: Southland Sharks (neutral) 108-75
WELLINGTON SAINTS AWARD WINNERS
Corey Webster (leading scorer, all-star five, most outstanding guard and NZ guard, league MVP, NZ MVP)
Tai Wesley (forward of the year, all-star five)
Shea Ili (finals MVP, all-star five)
Kevin Braswell (coach of the year)
Fran Scholey (administrator of the year)