The Bay Hawks have missed a glorious opportunity to jump into playoff contention in the National Basketball League, giving away a 19 point lead in a 86-81 defeat to the Southland Sharks.
The Hawks came into the game as the only side with a realistic chance of challenging the current top four teams, sitting with a 3-6 record. While that is substantially behind the 5-5 Supercity Rangers, they face the Rangers at home on Saturday, giving them a chance to significantly close the gap, and subsequently hold the playoff tiebreaker over Supercity.
A win over the Sharks would have come as an unexpected boost, and put the Hawks right in the mix after their slow start to the season. Having won their first two games under interim coach Benny Hill, the Hawks have been playing like the team they were predicted to be at the beginning of the season, utilising their talents to be on a similar level to most of the non-Wellington Saints teams in the league.
They continued that form early on against the Sharks, who took a long time to find their rhythm. Heavily pressing on defence as is their custom, the Sharks successfully got the ball out of Hawks point guard Jarrod Kenny's hands in the early going.
However, the Hawks' secondary creation was capable, with Tony Tolovae getting some good looks. With the Sharks swarming, the Hawks attacked when given a numbers advantage, and passed well to hit the open man.
That was enough to craft out a small lead through the first quarter, but they quickly extended that in the second quarter, when Everard Bartlett got hot.
Bartlett hit several tough contested threes, collecting 16 points on five shots as he also made his way to the foul line. With the bombs dropping, the Hawks went on a 15-0 run, taking a 50-38 halftime lead which extended to 19 early in the third period.
The game was a scrappy affair for the majority, with plenty of messy contests for rebounds and some sloppy halfcourt execution.
While the Sharks were poor in large patches, they were also unlucky, with several open threes not dropping as part of a 4-19 night from beyond the arc. With their attempts rimming out, they stayed afloat thanks to quality bench contributions from Duane Bailey (10 points in 14 minutes) and Derone Raukawa.
With Tai Webster's availability for the Tall Blacks at the Asia Cup uncertain as he chases his NBA dream, Raukawa could be in line for one of the traditional three Tall Blacks point guard spots.
Excellent at creating open looks off the pick-and-roll, Raukawa also did well getting to the rim as he continued his solid season with 14 points, three rebounds and four assists.
Once the fourth quarter arrived, the Sharks big men stepped up, with Nick Kay (16 points, nine rebounds) and Alex Pledger (12 points, nine rebounds) corralling offensive rebounds and keeping possessions alive for the Sharks.
A 44-35 edge on the glass was largely manufactured in the final quarter as the Sharks quickly cut a 10 point three quarter time deficit to three early in the final period.
As the Hawks could only muster nine points in the fourth, the Sharks - struggling for execution themselves - slowly edged in front. The Hawks scored just one point in the final 5.41, but still had a chance, down by three points with 18 seconds to play.
However, off a broken inbounds play, the ball ended up in the hands of centre Amir Williams, who had taken one three in his entire college and professional career.
Williams - who had a fantastic outing with 16 points and 17 rebounds - inexplicably shot a three with 11 seconds remaining, unsurprisingly airballing it and sealing victory for the Sharks, who remain easily in second with an 8-3 record.
The Hawks' playoff hopes now rest on the remaining games this weekend, with the Rangers facing the Nelson Giants tomorrow (livestreamed on nzherald.co.nz) before visiting the Hawks the following day, knowing that a 2-0 roadtrip would kill off any chances of a change to the playoff hierarchy.