CAMBEWARRA’S James Hunter and his Southland Sharks are the 2018 Sal's New Zelaand NBL Champions after beating the Wellington Saints 98-96 in a heart-stopping grand final at TSB Arena in Wellington on Sunday.
Tall Black guard Reuben Te Rangi was been relatively quiet during the regular season, but stepped up big in the playoffs including on Sunday where he had 26 points, six assists and six rebounds which also earned him the final’s Most Valuable Player.
After starting in place of injured point guard Jarrad Weeks, Derone Raukawa would come off the bench but added 16.
Weeks, who had been suffering with a hamstring, started for the Sharks and help them get off to a quick start with five points, but he could only manage six minutes.
Conor Morgan continued his hot form during the finals weekend with 17 points and Orlando Coleman added 13 for the Sharks who have now won titles in 2013, 2015, and now 2018.
The visitors got off to a hot start shooting 76 per cent from the field in the first quarter to lead 35-29.
The offense continued for the Sharks as they would put on 32 points in the second quarter to push their lead up to 16.
After the break the Sharks would maintain their lead thanks to eight straight points from Alex Pledger.
But Wellington would fight their way into the contest and by three quarter time were only trailing by eight.
An early three from Te Rangi would push the Sharks lead back up to 11, but from there on they would go into survival mode as the momentum quickly shifted to the Saints thanks to a three from Ili, a breakaway dunk from Jordan Ngatai and then a three from LJ Peak would hit a three to get to within one.
Wellington would force a Raukawa into a tough shot and get a stop, but the Sharks would quickly force a Saints turnover which would end in a Te Rangi three to put the Sharks up four.
Again the Saints would close within one, and after Morgan fouled out with three minutes left it might look like the Saints would close in to the elusive three peat.
LJ Peak would foul out in the following possession and Raukawa would make a gutsy drive to the hoop to put Southland up 98-95.
With under a minute to play, Ili would get fouled and make one of two from the line to put them down two with 42 seconds left.
Wellington got a defensive stop with seconds remaining setting up a thrilling finale which saw Ili dish to Leon Henry for the potential game winning three which would not drop, the Saints managing to fetch the offensive rebound and have a couple of attempts to tie the game.
But the Sharks were able to finally claim the rebound.
It is the second time the Sharks have come to Wellington to claim the title also doing it in 2015 when they were led by Kevin Braswell who suffered his first playoff loss as a coach.
Sharks head coach, Judd Flavell, had taken the Sharks to the semi’s in his first season, and suffered defeat at the hands of the Saints in last year’s grand final.
But this weekend he was able to get his troops to step up this weekend despite the adversity of not being able to play arguably his star player Weeks.
Ili would score 27 points, LJ Peak had 21 points and Jordan Ngatai added 21 for the Saints who miss out on the three peat for the third time in franchise history.