THE Waratah League finals hopes of Scott Balsar and his Illawarra Hawks are over, after losing a thrilling contest 67-63 to Penrith on Saturday.
With both teams sporting a 5-4 record and needing a win in the penultimate round of the 2020 youth men's division one competition, neither took a step back at the Penrith Valley Regional Sports Centre.
Balsar's side jumped out to a 9-6 lead midway through the opening term, only for the hosts to respond and carry a 15-11 advantage into the first break.
Despite falling behind as many as nine, the visitors, who were headlined by Shoalhaven's Gavin Costain and Ziad El Tobgy, managed to fight back and go into half-time down by only two possessions (30-26).
The third quarter was again one of runs, with the Panthers starting on a 10-2 streak.
But staying true to the fighting spirit they've shown all season, the Hawks didn't go away and clawed their way back to 42-all following a free-throw to Costain.
Heading into the final period, the Hawks trialled by four but that was quickly erased by two-point baskets to Zachary Ottosson and Will Farrar - to lead 46-45.
The hosts responded to score the next seven points before stretching their advantage to 12 points with 3.56 on the clock.
Knowing their season was on the line, the red and whites threw everything they had at the Panthers in the final exchanges - bringing the score to within four with 1.05 to go, thanks to a three-pointer by Costain.
That would be as close as the visitors got, as the Panthers held their nerve from the free-throw line, to win 67-63, to keep their own finals dreams alive.
In the loss, Ottosson led the way for the Hawks with 15 points, as Costain, Farrar and Philip Dopud all scored nine.
The sixth-placed Hawks, who are now 5-5, will look to end their season on a high against the ninth-placed Sutherland Sharks on Saturday - with the fixture tipping off at 3pm at the Sutherland Basketball Stadium.