Kerron Johnson was up for this one and the little Breakers import delivered a much-needed game-winning performance for his club at the NSEC tonight.
Johnson, going up against his old college rival, sparked the Breakers to a thrilling 106-101 victory over the Wollongong Hawks that was in doubt until the southpaw from Belmont University took over in the final minutes.
With Clarke, the pride of fellow mid-major Butler University, coming up big in the second half for the Hawks, Johnson picked a good time to produce a special response as he spurred the Breakers to a come-from-behind victory in the final quarter.
The win improves the threepeat champions to 7-11 and drops the Hawks to 6-11 for the season. It’s their third straight victory over Wollongong this season and extends a streak that stretches back to February of 2012.
Johnson was huge down the stretch for the Breakers as he poured in seven late points, including a dagger three-pointer with a minute left. He finished with 21 points (6/14 FG, 3/7 3PT) and three rebounds to spearhead a solid all-round offensive display from the Breakers.
The point guard also showed some welcome fire in the belly, demonstrated vividly when he made a big block on a Clarke drive and came up talking to his rival.
"It was a big matchup for us, and I was really up for it," said Johnson afterwards. "I just wanted to try and make everything hard, and he made a few shots and I made a few shots and it got a little spirited there for a minute.
"But we’re both competitors, and that’s what I have to be for this team, and we ended up coming out on top."
Vickerman was full of praise for his import’s heady display which backed up a similar closing effort in the road win at Sydney.
"He knocked his free-throws down tonight which was really pleasing. It was also pleasing to see him shoot the three-ball, which is something we’ve always felt is in there, and tonight he made threes, along with Reuben [Te Rangi], Corey and some of the other guys who shot the ball well."
Johnson’s fellow import Gary Wilkinson also hit a big-time late triple to finish with 20 points (7/10 FG, 3/3 3PT), two boards and four assists in another impressive display, while springy small forward Tom Abercrombie produced a timely return to form with 20 points (7/13 FG, 3/5 3PT) and six rebounds for the winners.
Corey Webster also found his stroke off the bench to knock down five of his eight shots for 13 points, while Mika Vukona added 11 points, six rebounds and two assists, and made a massive three-point play that levelled the scores at 95-95 inside the last two minutes.
Youngster Te Rangi’s three straight third-quarter triples were also highlighted by both camps as massive momentum changers, right at a time the Breakers had gone off the boil.
The Hawks were paced by a monster 24 points (10/12 FG) from powerhouse small forward Kevin Tiggs, while Clarke shook off a slow start (he had just four points at the half) to finish with 23 points with his usual dazzling array of off-balance shots. The hard-working David Gruber weighed in with 21 points on eight-of-11 shooting for the visitors.
It was a huge result for the Breakers who led by as many as 12 in the second quarter, but could never quite shake the Hawks loose. They have to start racking up the wins and after getting themselves in a tight spot late, found a way out of it, largely thanks to Johnson’s timely display of assertiveness.
The Kiwi club shot an impressive 56 percent from the field and 58 from three-point land, but struggled to contain the Hawks who also shot 56 percent overall.
Next up are the Sydney Kings at Vector next Thursday and Vickerman still isn’t sure whether Alex Pledger will be able to return from his ankle injury. If not, they certainly have an able replacement in Casey Frank who had six points, five boards and three assists in a valuable turn off the bench.
NZ Breakers 106 (Kerron Johnson 21, Tom Abercrombie 20, Gary Wilkinson 20, Corey Webster 13, Mika Vukona 11) Wollongong Hawks 101 (Kevin Tiggs 24, Rotnei Clarke 23, David Gruber 21, Rhys Martin 15, Oscar Forman 11). 1Q: 30-26; HT: 55-49; 3Q: 81-78.
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