Bryce Cotton arrived to revive the Perth Wildcats season and not only did he do that, he delivered another championship with 45 points in the 95-86 Swisse NBL Grand Final Game 3 win over the Illawarra Hawks on Sunday.
The Wildcats returned to Perth Arena trying to sweep the best-of-five series over the Hawks with 13,611 fans cheering them on, and appeared set to cruise to that task after scoring the opening 12 points.
But the Hawks made the Grand Final on guts and determination, and fought valiantly to be within two late in the third term.
Cotton was the difference, though and nailed a miracle three to open the fourth quarter on the way to the nine-point win.
The superstar import out of Providence College ended up with an NBL season-high 45 points to secure the Grand Final MVP. He shot 12/17 from the field, 7/12 from deep and 14/15 at the stripe. Which set a new all-time Grand Final record.
When he arrived for the January 7 road game in Sydney, the Wildcats were precariously placed at 8-9 with a Finals spot in jeopardy.
Not only did Cotton help secure a 31st straight Finals appearance, he inspired the ‘Cats to a record-extending eighth NBL championship. It’s just the second of those that is back-to-back and first consecutive successes for the glamour club since 1991.
It is a fourth triumph for retiring great Shawn Redhage (three points) who started in place of Matt Knight in his last NBL appearance.
Captain Damian Martin (three points, five rebounds, three assists, two steals) and 250-gamer Jesse Wagstaff (10 points, three assists) are also four-time championship winners.
It’s a third title for Knight and Greg Hire, and second for Jarrod Kenny and Casey Prather (17 points, four assists, four boards).
Wildcats coach Trevor Gleeson is proud of his team’s effort to fight through adversity to claim another title, but it took something special from Cotton.
“That’s one of the best performances I’ve seen and I just thank goodness he was playing for us,” Gleeson said.
“I’m just so proud of all our guys. They kept it together through the bad times and we had some adversity through the season, but we managed to pull through and get things together late.
“The bigger the game and the more pressure, our guys step up every single time. I’m so proud of how they performed all through the playoffs to go five-and-zip. That’s a hell of a performance in this league.”
After conceding the game’s first 12 points, it was a brave fight by the Hawks who never surrendered or stopped believing.
Rotnei Clarke turned it on, finishing with 30 points, while AJ Ogilvy battled his injured ankle for 11 points and seven rebounds.
Marvelle Harris (8 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists) bravely started and played despite receiving news that his ill father had passed away on Saturday.
Hawks coach Rob Beveridge was full of pride for his team’s fight.
“We went up against an incredible ball club. I think the difference between us and them is that they have this belief that they can win. They just go to another level,” Beveridge said.
“We’re a new group and although it’s extremely disappointing, this is a wonderful experience for our young guys to be exposed to playing in front of 14,000 people against the best team this league has seen in a very long time.
“We’re going to learn from it and continue to build with the majority of our players on contract. It’s disappointing that we couldn’t get it done, but I’m exceptionally proud of our players.”
Perth had 12 points in the blink of an eye to start the game, including a trademark spin move and floater from Redhage.
The Hawks eventually scored at the 7:24 minute mark with two foul shots from Nick Kay (six points, five rebounds, three assists).
Despite nine points in a two-minute burst from Cotton, Illawarra steadied with 11 of the first term’s last 14 points to trail by nine at quarter-time.
Despite a pair of Oscar Forman threes, the ‘Cats again appeared right on top when Cotton a four-point play. He backed it up with two more threes as the lead grew to 16.
Illawarra, though, finished the half on a confidence-boosting 10-0 run to trail by just five.
Cotton again took the game away with eight quick points to open the second half, but the Hawks were warming to the challenge.
Cody Ellis (six points) was enjoying being back in his hometown and hit a couple of threes to get the Hawks within two with 2:45 left in the third term.
But the ‘Cats scored the next seven points at the charity stripe to lead 71-63 heading into the fourth when again a Cotton three took Perth’s lead out to 11.
Clarke continued to give the Hawks an outside hope and they were within three again with five minutes to go.
But the Wildcats weren’t surrendering the lead, as a Wagstaff three, five quick points to Cotton and a Prather triple ensured an eighth title was heading west.
PERTH WILDCATS 95 (Cotton 45, Prather 17, Wagstaff 10)
ILLAWARRA HAWKS 86 (Clarke 30, Ogilvy 11, Harris 8, Martin 8)