The Taranaki Mountain Airs pulled off a remarkable last-gasp win over the Saints tonight, coming from behind to take the lead with under two seconds remaining and hold on for a dramatic 76-74 National Basketball League win.
After taking a one-point lead at the end of the first quarter, the Airs were behind for all but the time it took the vocal crowd to hold their breath as import Suleiman Braimoh took the game-winning shot from just inside the arc.
It was a demonstration of just how hard this team wants to win at times.
"It was a great team effort and we always knew we had to step up," Airs captain Aaron Bailey-Nowell said as he was swamped by wellwishers.
Bailey-Nowell summed up the performance from the home side at the TSB Stadium, scoring a game-high 21 points and pulling down six rebounds.
"We always knew it was going to be tough tonight and I thought a lot of our young guys stepped up. We really needed them too and I thought they really did step up."'
The Saints took a 41-37 lead into the halftime break, although they never really looked like they hit top gear.
Sure, they pulled off some big plays, but they looked to be going through the motions at times against a side they must have thought clearly inferior.
They would have had reason to feel that way after Airs import Adrian Oliver was again ruled out with blisters on his feet.
His absence meant Airs coach Daryn Shaw was forced to ask veteran Willie Banks, the team's assistant coach, to suit up.
The fact Banks defied his age through the second quarter highlighted the attitude the Airs have showed through the season. Down on manpower but not determination.
The Saints sit in a clearly healthier position and could call on a number of players to provide the offensive safety they wanted at times.
New import Brandon Bowman was strong under the basket, while Damien Ekenasio enjoyed the space he was afforded outside the arc in the first half.
Not that the visitors had it all their own way.
Braimoh was again the go-to man, especially with Oliver absent, while Brad Anderson continues his development under Shaw and veteran coach Steve McKean.
Anderson sank some vital baskets in that first half hour and he got good support from Bailey-Nowell, who was into everything at both ends.
Some of the biggest applause was saved for teenager Dane Brooks after he pulled off two great blocks.
There was more applause for Anderson and Derek Albertsen, who both found the basket from outside, but it was the Saints who came out with more purpose after the break, although they couldn't shake the Airs until late in the third quarter when they opened up an eight-point gap.
Or so they thought.
The Airs refused to call it quits, though, coming back to narrow the gap to five at the end of the third quarter, then, remarkably drawing things level with just two minutes to play after some classy work from Braimoh and the rest of his determined side.
It brought the crowd to their feet, and clearly spurred on, Braimoh found the basket to leave the Saints with 1.6 seconds to find a winner or the tying basket.
They couldn't do it. Fittingly it was Bailey-Nowell who intercepted off a loose pass to send the crowd home delighted.
Taranaki Mountain Airs 76 (Aaron Bailey-Nowell 21, Suleiman Braimoh 19, Derek Albertsen 18) Wellington Saints 74 (Lindsay Tait 17, Corey Webster 16). 1Q: 20-19; HT: 37-41; 3Q: 57-62.
- Taranaki Daily News
Is Ma'a Nonu returning to the Hurricanes ...Related story: Ma'a Nonu's return to Hurricanes confirmed