The Wellington Saints and Southland Sharks have underlined their status as two of the sides to beat in the National Basketball League with important wins last night.
The Sharks moved to 7-3 with their sixth straight win, holding on to beat a plucky Taranaki Mountain Airs side 109-105 in New Plymouth. The win puts them just one behind the Saints on the ladder, who sit in first after defeating the Nelson Giants 85-76.
After starting out the season 1-3, the Sharks have been the form team in the competition, and two wins on the road this weekend further helps their cause. Paul Henare's side first defeated the short-handed Manawatu Jets, before holding on against a dogged Airs outfit who are still searching for a first win of the season.
Australian import Todd Blanchfield, recently signed by Melbourne United in the ANBL, had his best game of an already impressive season, hitting eight triples on his way to 37 points and nine rebounds.
Most Outstanding Forward candidate Tai Wesley put in another fine showing with 19 points, nine rebounds, five assists and three blocks while Adrian Majstrovich added 17 points and 12 rebounds, icing the game with two clutch free-throws with just seconds remaining.
The Airs had given the Sharks a scare, leading at halftime before giving up 38 points in a third quarter which made the deficit too taxing to overcome. Despite cutting Southland's lead to two with 1.47 to play, they couldn't find the killer blow which would have gifted them their much sought after first win of the campaign.
Aaron Fuller had 30 points and 13 rebounds while fellow American import Chris Hagan had 26 points, six rebounds and four assists as the Airs fell to 0-10.
Enjoying the rarefied airs of the opposite end of the table are the Saints, who are now 8-3 after disposing of a suddenly shaky Giants side.
Nelson have now lost three of their last four games, with their sole win coming against a Manawatu Jets side after Jets point guard Brandon Jenkins lost a contact, causing him to miss two late game-deciding free-throws.
Their offence couldn't get going against a Saints side who had Leon Henry returning from injury, with one of the elite NBL defenders donning a mask after breaking several bones in his face in a fall earlier this season.
Tim Fanning's side shot just 38% from the field and 19% from deep, with only import guard McKenzie Moore (20 points, eight rebounds) and veteran Phill Jones (16 points) having noteworthy offensive impacts as the Giants fell into a 27-14 hole early and failed to get back within more than four points.
The Saints had 22 points and 13 rebounds from MVP candidate Torrey Craig, while the ever-classy Lindsay Tait had 16 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Dion Prewster added 15 points and six rebounds while Henry had 11 points and eight rebounds in his return.
While the Saints are top, the previously high-flying Giants now fall to 7-3 on the season, and are looking over their shoulders at the 6-5 Canterbury Rams as five sides fight it out for the four playoff spots.
1. Wellington Saints 8-3
2. Southland Sharks 7-3
3. Nelson Giants 7-3
4. Supercity Rangers 8-4
5. Canterbury Rams 6-5
6. Hawke's Bay Hawks 3-6
7. Manawatu Jets 3-8
8. Taranaki Mountain Airs 0-10