Unsung guard Mitch Norton answered the bell in crunch time to help the Illawarra Hawks defeat Adelaide 100-94 in a thrilling Swisse NBL semi-final Game 2 on Sunday at WIN Entertainment Centre.
Thrashed by the 36ers in Thursday’s opening game of their best-of-three series, the Hawks responded as they have all season with their backs to the wall to set up a deciding third game in Adelaide this Thursday.
Norton stepped up with a season-high 17 points, while Tim Coenraad tallied 17 points and 10 rebounds – the second double-double of his career – in another strong performance off the bench.
Rotnei Clarke had 15 points for Illawarra, Nick Kay and Rhys Martin combined for 10, while AJ Ogilvy finished with nine points, 11 rebounds and four blocks.
Recently-crowned NBL MVP Jerome Randle scored a game-high 20 points but was just 8/23 from the field and had five turnovers.
Randle was public enemy number one and copped boos all night from the hometown fans.
Daniel Johnson had 17 for the Sixers and Eric Jacobsen was strong under the cup with 12.
The Hawks were up by five at half-time and took a one-point lead into the final period.
Illawarra got the start they wanted, striding to a 7-2 lead before the Sixers weathered the storm with a 9-0 run.
Norton and Kay got Illawarra back on the front foot, scoring six points apiece in the first period, while Coenraad had four points, two rebounds an assist and a steal in three minutes off the bench to spark his side to a 28-22 quarter-time lead.
The Hawks upped the ante in the second period and the Sixers were clearly rattled, if Johnson’s airballed free throw was any guide.
White scored on Randle in the low post to push the margin out to 10 and the pair was warned by referees moments later after tangling when play stopped for a time-out.
Illawarra exploited a brittle Sixers defence, making nine of their first 12 shots in the period to lead by as many as 12.
But the minor premiers gradually regained their nerve, cutting the Hawks’ lead to 54-49 at half-time on Sobey’s coast-to-coast bucket in the closing seconds.
The Sixers made 51 per cent of their shots to Illawarra’s 49 per cent, while the Hawks held a 24-19 edge under the boards.
Coenraad and Ogilvy combined for 20 points and 14 rebounds, while Anthony Drmic (10 points) was an unlikely scoring leader for Adelaide.
Randle had eight points on 3/7 shooting and five assists, though that was offset by five turnovers.
The Sixers pulled to within a point before Clarke’s crowd-pleasing three briefly eased the pressure.
Adelaide patiently chipped away, regaining the lead for the first time since the opening quarter on Randle’s tear-drop jumper in the lane.
Clarke had the final say, driving deep into the paint and finishing with a buzzer-beating layup to put the Hawks up 79-78 at three-quarter-time.
The final quarter was a blur of ties and lead changes from start to finish before Norton and the Hawks sealed the deal to set up an intriguing decider.
ILLAWARRA HAWKS 100 (Coenraad 17, Norton 17, Clarke 15)
ADELAIDE 36ERS 94 (Randle 20, Johnson 17, Jacobsen 12)