They were injured, they were underdogs and they stood in the way of history, but the Southland Sharks smelled blood.
Their opponents, the Wellington Saints, had been the rulers of the NBL the last two seasons, and were primed for a three-peat. Yet, they had one last obstacle in their way – A Sharks team who knew they had what it took to dethrone the kings.
After all, they had already done it twice this year, so why not one more time on the Saints' home court?
It took a gargantuan effort, but the Sharks pulled it off. They ambushed the Saints, holding off a ferocious comeback to claim their third NBL title, and deny the hosts a storybook send-off for departing coach Kevin Braswell.
His counterpart, Judd Flavell, was a picture of relief at the final whistle, having clung on after the Saints came roaring back from a 17-point deficit.
"The Saints made one hell of a comeback. The wheels got a bit wobbly there but credit to the guys. You get down to those last few possessions and we talked about it being a grind-out game. Such a different game, the first half to the second but I'm immensely proud of the guys. We've had some adversity this week so to deal with that and come away with the championship is fantastic."
There's just something about Wellington for the Sharks, having defeated the Saints in the capital three years ago for their second title. Today, they repeated the dose for number three.
Good things weren't coming in threes for the Saints, who came up short of what would have been their first three-peat; once again being usurped by their greatest rivals.
The Sharks have been their only consistent challenger over the past few seasons, and even more so recently; in their last 45 games, the Saints have lost just five times – but four of them at the hands of the Sharks.
The two sides, through no fault of their own, have turned the league into somewhat of a procession, combining to win all of the past six titles. However, as Flavell notes, "the Saints and the Sharks will continue the rivalry for the next few years at least," and if they deliver incredible displays like they did in the finale, it will be a delight to look forward to.
That the Sharks managed to set the final alight despite largely being without star guard Jarrad Weeks underlines the impressiveness of their accomplishment. Hobbled by a hamstring injury, Weeks missed their semifinal win over the Nelson Giants, and mustered six valiant minutes in the finale before ceding way.
When he left the court, the Sharks led 23-15. It was a lead they would never relinquish, after an incredible display of shot making evolved into a desperate defensive stand at the end.
To call it a game worthy of a final would be an understatement. The Sharks shot out to a substantial lead behind an offensive masterclass – they could barely miss in the first half, with Conor Morgan and Reuben Te Rangi leading the way.
Te Rangi picked the perfect time for his best game of the season, dropping 26 points on his way to the Finals MVP award, while Derone Raukawa stepped into the void left by Weeks, operating as the offensive fulcrum for large periods and battling manfully on defence.
Their lead stretched to 17, but you can't keep a champion team down, and the Saints stormed back as the Sharks cooled off. Slowly but surely the Saints chipped away at the deficit, with Shea Ili – awarded the 2018 league MVP at night's end – leading the charge with 27 points.
Suddenly, the deficit was just one, and the Sharks were having to call upon their bench as semifinal standout Conor Morgan fouled out. However, the Sharks' depth has been their calling card all year long, and they clung desperately to their evaporating advantage as the home crowd roared.
Down by two with 13 seconds to go, the Saints had one final possession, and in fitting style, had three shots to keep their season alive.
Three times they missed, and the third time was truly the charm for the superb Sharks.