Down - but still certain
The Waikato Pistons may have lost home court advantage last night should they meet the Wellington Saints in the NBL final, but they gained plenty along the way.
The Pistons went down 78-74 in the regular season finale at Hamilton Boys' High School but will enter the playoffs confident they can retain the National Basketball League title they've captured for the past two years.
Already forced to meet their fellow title favourites without 2.1-metre tall centre Alex Pledger, who was ruled out through concussion, the Pistons lost import guard Rashard Tucker to a knock halfway through the second quarter.
Yet they played some of their best basketball all season and led almost all the way before getting run down in the final minutes by a visiting side missing only star import Eric Devendorf.
The side's effort and application left coach Dean Vickerman smiling despite the disappointment of just missing out on holding home court advantage throughout the playoffs.
"I wanted us to be disciplined and structured on offence and defence and we were.
"It's the first time they've won this season when held under 80 points," Vickerman said.
"We got some great efforts from the likes of Mike Homik, Ray Cameron and Gerard Bowden and we gave ourselves a chance to win it in the last seconds."
After the Saints had clawed back the lead by two with Leon Henry making both free-throws with 10 seconds left, Puke Lenden had his three-point attempt rim out and Lindsay Tait sealed the result with two more free-throws.
Tait's strong second-half showing, after being rattled by an unsportsmanlike foul in the first half from Thomas Abercrombie that saw players from both sides front up to each other, helped the visitors recover from a deficit that grew as large as 15 points early in the third quarter.
He ended with 22 points, and import Erron Maxey contributed 16 off the bench, including 3/3 from beyond the arc.
Hayden Allen (15 points) and Tony Ronaldson (14) were prominent for the hosts while Homik had 10 points and six assists in 36 minutes.
The Pistons, who shot the ball well and stifled the Saints with a mix of zone and man-to-man defences, should have Pledger and Tucker available again when they host their first playoff match next Friday.