It had all the makings of a rout but in the end the Illawarra Hawks had to sweat out a nerve-wracking 90-73 win over Cairns on Friday night at WIN Entertainment Centre.
Leading by 26 in third quarter, the Hawks survived a late comeback to secure their 14th win of the season and remain in second spot with two games to play.
Cairns gave the home crowd a big scare when they cut the margin to six with four minutes remaining, but the Hawks regained their composure down the stretch to close out a crucial victory.
The Taipans were left to lament a horrible second period, slipping to 12-13 and making it that much harder to claim a top four finish.
Rotnei Clarke starred for the Hawks with 19 points and five assists, Nick Kay added 17 points, while AJ Ogilvy was a force with 13 points, 11 rebounds and three steals.
Mitch McCarron led the Taipans with 13 points, while Tony Mitchell had 12, including seven in the final quarter to give his side a glimmer of hope at a miraculous comeback win.
Illawarra set up the win with 68 per cent shooting in the first half and finished at 51 per cent for the game. They also won the rebound battle 37-28 and forced the Taipans into 12 first-half turnovers.
The Hawks had all five starters on the scoresheet in the opening four minutes, but the Taipans were happy to play a running game and had no trouble scoring themselves, as Cam Gliddon racked up eight points in the first period.
Clarke drained a triple and scored on an old-fashioned three-point play moments later to propel Illawarra to a 30-18 lead before the visitors stopped the rot, pulling to within 30-23 at quarter-time.
The Taipans kept chipping away and closed the gap to five early in the second period.
But the Hawks responded by raising the defensive intensity, forcing Cairns into 10 turnovers and 5/14 shooting for the quarter.
Illawarra made almost everything they fired up, shooting at a sizzling 68 per cent and charging to a commanding 54-34 half-time lead.
Clarke was up to 13 points, while Ogilvy and Kay combined for 18.
Gliddon had eight but was scoreless in the second quarter.
Illawarra enjoyed an 18-10 edge on the boards, though that had a lot to do with the fact the Taipans were pulling the ball out of the net throughout the first half.
The writing seemed to be on the wall for the Taipans when the lead blew out to 26 five minutes into the second half.
But they hung tough, fighting back to within six with four minutes to play.
Guard Mitch Norton nailed a clutch three to put the Hawks back on the front foot and they finished the game strongly.
The Taipans host Perth on Sunday and the Hawks face a Monday night road meeting with Melbourne United.
ILLAWARRA HAWKS 90 (Clarke 19, Kay 17, Ogilvy 13)
CAIRNS TAIPANS 73 (McCarron 13, Mitchell 12, Gliddon 10)