The Southland Sharks withstood a spirited Canterbury Rams challenge to get their National Basketball League title defence off to a safe start.
Defending NBL champions Southland edged the Rams 95-92 in both side's season opener on Sunday in Invercargill in a game that could have gone either way in the final minutes.
Canterbury looked set to cause a round one boil-over, leading 80-73 approaching the final quarter, but a big fourth quarter effort from the Sharks got them home.
Late free throws from Todd Blanchfield and Mitch McCarron snuck the Sharks in front with Luke Aston missing a three at the buzzer, which would have sent the game into overtime.
Southland produced a balanced scoring attack with Australian import Blanchfield top-scoring with 24 points. Compatriot McCarron was impressive with 16 points, 11 rebounds, and seven assists.
Alex Pledger (17 points, eight boards), Tom Vodanovich (17 points) and Australian point guard Jarrad Weeks (17 points, seven rebounds, and five assists) also paced the Sharks, who outscored Canterbury 43-33 in the second half.
Veteran Australian guard Adam Gibson, signed as a week one temporary import for Cameron Gliddon, led the way for the Rams with 21 points, 19 which came in the first half, and five assists.
Southland will be thrilled to avoid an unwanted round one upset, but will know there's plenty of room for improvement after a patchy first half display.
They struggled with their free throw shooting until coming right when it mattered in the final quarter and were outscored 33-4 by the Rams' bench.
The Sharks out-rebounded the Rams 40-28, pulling in 15 offensive rebounds to Canterbury's four, which had a major impact on the final result.
Down 59-52 at halftime, Southland roared back into the game to start the second half with a 12-2 run to hit the lead.
Canterbury never panicked and produced several strong offensive bursts in the third quarter to stick with the Sharks and head into the final quarter with a seven point advantage (80-73).
The Rams were red-hot with their shooting to start the game, landing 13 of their 16 attempts (81 per cent) from the field in the first quarter. They also hit five of six from three point range to jump out to a 33-31 lead by the end of the first term.
Gibson was outstanding in the first half, hitting his first seven field goals, including five from five from three. He finally missed his first field goal with four minutes left in the first half and by that time had scored 19 points.
Southland coach Judd Flavell would have been livid at his side's defence in the first half. Canterbury knocked down some tough attempts, but there were too many easy looks and communication breakdowns as the Rams netted 59 first half points to take a 59-52 buffer into the main break.
It was video-game like offensive stuff from the Rams, who shot a scorching 22 from 29 (75 per cent) in the first half and 11 of 14 (78 per cent) from beyond the arc.
Southland shot at a good clip too, hitting 54 per cent of their field goals in the first half (20 from 37 at 54 per cent) and six of 10 from deep (60 per cent).
AT A GLANCE:
Southland Sharks 95 (Todd Blanchfield 24, Alex Pledger 17, Jarrad Weeks 17, Tom Vodanovich 17, Mitch McCarron 16) Canterbury Rams 92 (Adam Gibson 21, Luke Aston 13, Brent Fisher 10) 1Q: 31-33, HT: 52-59, 3Q: 73-80.