After a 665-day hiatus the SIT Zero Fees Southland Sharks' Orange Army didn't miss a beat on Thursday night, turning out in big numbers and cheering their beloved team to a thrilling 78-76 win over the visiting Steelformers Taranaki Mountainairs.
A Josh Cunningham clutch shot with two seconds to play was enough to get the win, after the play before Tai Wynyard rebounded a missed Marcel Jones' free throw to put in a lay-up and level the scores.
It was a dramatic finish to a contest the Sharks led by as much as 20 points during the second period.
Despite the early deficit, the Airs never went shy and just kept working on the back of constant encouragement from coach, Trent Adam.
Though a 23-11 first quarter impressed the home fans, both coaches appeared a little frustrated as wayward shooting created some early problems in each camp. The second quarter opened up a bit for both teams and produced an even 24-23 tussle, leading to a 47-34 lead for the Sharks at the long break.
Toby Gillooly almost dropped a double-double in the opening half, delivering 9pts and 10rbs, while Marcel Jones kept the Airs in touch with 13pts.
A big advantage through the first half for the Sharks was a helpful 15 offensive rebounds, which was equally a thorn in the side of the Airs. It was a stat that Coach Adam honed in on at the break and he would have been happy with the response - the Sharks only grabbed two more offensive rebounds for the game.
The third period was a classic battle as both teams switched up defensively and constantly tried to take the ascendency. The Airs slowed the Sharks offensively and it worked, taking the quarter 20-14 in a momentum shift that ultimately led to a thrilling last period.
With the game on the line, Dom Kelman-Poto came up with two big blocks midway through the last quarter and it had the desired effect as the Sharks found their groove.
But, just as quickly, the Airs found a way to respond through some big plays from Jones and Haize Walker, while a Carlin Davison dunk off a long pass from Walker even drew some applause from the Sharks faithful.
The final plays were exhilarating, ending with Cunningham's drive to the basket for the winner.
It was a second successive win for the Sharks following their season-opening 19-point victory over the Giants last Monday, but this one came was far tougher than they expected.
Southland Sharks (78) defeated Taranaki Mountainairs (76)
Sharks: Josh Cunningham 18pts, Alonzo Burton 15pts, Toby Gillooly 13pts & 11rbs, Dom Kelman-Poto 11pts, 8rbs & 4stl.
Airs: Marcel Jones 23pts, 10rbs & 6ast, Haize Walker 15pts & 4 treys, Tai Wynyard 11pts & 9rbs, Francis Mulvihill 10pts, 6rbs & 5ast.
1. Though the Sharks led by as much as 20pts they never looked settled. The Airs showed great resolve to claw their way back, and though they came up short after a Josh Cunningham game-winner, there was enough shown to suggest the Airs are going to be a lot of fun to watch.
2. Toby Gillooly has made the early running for 6th man of the year with a slick double-double. The sharp guard stuffed the stat sheet early and finished with 13pts and 11rbs off the pine.
3. It didn't take long for Marcel Jones (Mr Double-Double) to remind us he does most things in big numbers. Jones finished with 23pts and 10rbs. He looks set for a huge season.
Stuff MVP Votes
Marcel Jones (Airs- 7)
Courtney Belger (Sharks - 5)
Toby Gillooly (Sharks - 5)
Haize Walker (Airs - 4)
Dom Kelman-Poto (Sharks - 4)
Josh Cunningham (Sharks - 3)
Carlin Davison (Airs - 1)
Alonzo Burton (Sharks - 1)
Image courtesy of John Hawkins