Vukona carries Breakers to 12th straight win
Thank goodness for Mika Vukona, as the New Zealand Breakers workhorse willed his team to their 12th straight Australian NBL victory at the NSEC last night.
A final quarter meltdown threatened to engulf the Breakers as the Wollongong Hawks whittled a 15-point deficit all the way down to three, with still the best part of two minutes remaining.
But then Vukona, who had started with eight quick points, took the game over to seal a 92-84 victory in front of another sellout North Shore crowd. He had an offensive rebound and three-point play off Tom Abercrombie's missed triple to extend the lead back to six, then powered in for a layup to seal the deal with a minute left.
Vukona finished with a team-high 24 points on 11-of-14 shooting, equalling his career best output and setting a new high for his time at the Breakers. He also had four rebounds to round out a rousing display, and show he's more than up to the challenge provided by the injury-enforced absence of American big man Will Hudson..
With the runaway league leaders forced to downsize without their backup centre (for around a month), the result was a faster pace and increased intensity from the back-to-back Australian NBL champs as they extended their winning streak to a club-best dozen.
The victory was notable on a number of fronts. Not only did it take the Kiwi club to an imposing 20-3 record atop the standings, but it was their 10th on the trot at home, their fifth on the bounce over the Hawks (including a four-game sweep this season) and put them one step closer to securing that all-important minor premiership.
Some of the half-court defence was a bit ropey, and the way the Breakers allowed the Hawks back into the contest was also a concern. The visitors, who drop to 9-13, shot 53 percent from the floor and 47 from deep, but paid the price for too many turnovers (17) and a 12-3 pounding on the offensive boards.
But there was a lot to be positive about too for the Breakers, including an explosive 15-point third quarter from Abercrombie that saw the jumping jack three man finish with 17 points (7/12 FG) and six boards.
Alex Pledger also seemed to enjoy the responsibility as the team's only legit big, the seven-footer securing a quality double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. His three blocks also took his season tally of rejections to 35.
Cedric Jackson missed a lot of shots (10 of his 14 attempts) but still added 11 points and five rebounds, while Daryl Corletto's nine points and five dishes were handy, as were Dillon Boucher's quartet of assists and steals.
The Breakers won points off turnovers 21-7 and the overall boards battle 33-20 and also made double the trips to the foul-line as the visitors. All were telling stats.
For the visitors, Adris Deleon (33 points on 12/17 FG) and former Breaker Oscar Forman (21 points/five rebounds) carried their scoring load superbly, and very nearly eked out a famous comeback.
Breakers coach Andrej Lemanis wasn't too disappointed afterwards with his team's shaky final-quarter play, putting it down to a mix of the Hawks making some "good plays" and his own team's defence breaking down a little.
"It was good to be challenged and Mika came up with some clutch offensive rebounds at the end that sort of sealed the game," he said.
"I was more disappointed about the first half. We had opportunities to put a really big margin on them, but by halftime we had let them back in the game.
"Playing better in those key moments is one of the things we need to get better at."
Wollongong coach Gordie McLeod was disappointed his side's gritty fightback had come up short, but said they had paid the price for some shoddy play early in the contest.
"Giving them 21 points from turnovers is asking for trouble, and double that up with them getting to the foul-line 30 times builds the pressure.
"We should be handling that pressure a lot better than we are. The effort was great, but that doesn't get you over the line."
After taking a step back in offensive fluidity last week, it had been refreshing to see the Breakers burst out of the blocks with a 10-0 blitz. Vukona had eight quick points as the Breakers jumped out to 14-4 inside the first five minutes and by the quarter's end the home side had worked into a 26-14 lead.
That grew to as many as 17 in the second period before a nice Hawks run narrowed the deficit to a more respectable 11 (48-37) by the half.
The Breakers forced 11 first-half turnovers with their swarming defence and made the visitors pay with an 11-4 edge in points off the giveaways.
Wollongong's resurgence continued early in the third period when they edged within a half-dozen, before Abercrombie's outburst saw the Breakers quickly re-establish their ascendancy, with a 73-60 lead heading into the final term.
Then it got interesting. Vukona's kind of interesting.
NZ Breakers 92 (Mika Vukona 24, Tom Abercrombie 17, Alex Pledger 12, Cedric Jackson 11), Wollongong Hawks 84 (Adris Deleon 33, Oscar Forman 21, Malcolm Grant 10). 1Q: 26-14; HT: 48-37; 3Q: 73-60.