The three-pronged attack of Casey Prather, Bryce Cotton and Matt Knight lifted the Perth Wildcats to the 89-77 win over the Illawarra Hawks at Perth Arena on Sunday to open the Swisse NBL Grand Final Series.
After some rust showed early, it was Knight giving the ‘Cats some respite with 10 first quarter points following a strong start from a Hawks side missing import Marvelle Harris, and centre AJ Ogilvy fighting through an injured ankle.
Knight had the touch from 15-20 feet from the get-go and continued hitting his mid-range jumpers throughout the evening to finish with 18 points.
Prather ended up with 22 to go with six rebounds and five assists in a man-of-the-match performance, while Cotton added 18 points, six boards and four assists.
That gave the Wildcats the impetus to win Game 1 of the five-game series.
The visitors fought hard and at different points Cody Ellis (12 points), Tim Coenraad (11), Rotnei Clarke (11), Rhys Martin (11) and Kevin White (9) scored quick points.
But no Hawk got going for long enough to see them close in on the 100-point mark they have been hitting with regularity of late. In fact, Perth is the only team Illawarra has yet to score 90 against this season.
The stifling defence of Damian Martin also limited Clarke to just eight shots, of which he made three.
Offensive rebounds also hurt Illawarra, with Perth pulling down a monstrous 17 of them, including six to Knight who had 11 rebounds overall.
The Wildcats had 23 second chance points to just four from the Hawks – a stat that proved pivotal.
Wildcats coach Trevor Gleeson was pleased that his team shook off a slow start to play strongly after quarter-time.
“I thought we got better and better as the game went on. We started off pretty rusty in that first quarter but Matty was a shining light and he’s been in great form lately,” Gleeson said.
“We gave up too many points early and as soon as we locked on to the game plan a little bit better, the other three quarters were great.”
Hawks coach Rob Beveridge knows that his team just can’t win while allowing such a high number of offensive boards.
“We were soft and gave up 17 offensive rebounds. You simply cannot beat most teams, let alone the Wildcats, if you are going to give up 17 offensive rebounds,” Beveridge said.
“We had three. As far as I’m concerned as a coach in a Grand Final series, it’s unacceptable. We are legitimately in the game there and despite next-to-no preparation, the effort was not good enough. If we don’t rebound, we can’t win.
“When we rebound and play the defence, we can flow into our offence but we just played into the Wildcats’ hands. We then shot some crappy shots. It was just not good enough when it really counted. I’m pretty disappointed with our performance.”
It was a nervy start by both teams with a scoreless first five possessions until Ogilvy put one in from close range for the Hawks.
They did settle quicker than the ‘Cats side that has not laced up in a week, but Knight wasn’t missing his jumpers for 10 first quarter points and Prather’s pressure on both sides of the ball was helping keep the ‘Cats close.
It was Rhys Martin who gave Illawarra that extra spark with eight quick points for them to lead 26-21 after one.
That lead grew with a three from Clarke to start the second term and the Hawks were threatening to run away with it when Norton made a tough layup to make it 35-27.
Illawarra then went on a four-minute scoring drought, with Cotton firing to help Perth to a 10-0 run to reclaim the lead.
Cotton, who was not bashful (10 three-point attempts), hit another three soon after but the Hawks steadied and scores were locked up at 42 by half-tie.
The Hawks’ role players continued to take turns in standing up and five quick points to White saw them lead by four early in the second half, but it wouldn’t last.
The array of weapons Perth possess and the willingness to dominate the game with hustle was starting to win out, and the lead was six by three quarter-time after a buzzer-beating Angus Brandt put-back slam.
Ellis tried to lift the Hawks in his hometown with seven quick points but Prather, Cotton and Knight scored Perth last 18 points to wrap up the 12-point victory.
Game 2 will be at WIN Entertainment Centre on Wednesday night.
PERTH WILDCATS 89 (Prather 22, Cotton 18, Knight 18)
ILLAWARRA HAWKS 77 (Ellis 12, Clarke 11, Coenraad 11, Martin 11)