The Wellington Saints had gone in with an unblemished record but by halftime it looked like they had desperately needed the professional touch of cosmeticians to cover up the pimples and acne that were beginning to surface on the night of the end-of-season ball.
After all, it is often said in the make-up industry that when the eyes make a statement the lips should be quiet but the resource-rich powerhouse franchise from the capital city were struggling to find that chemistry tonight. When the Wellingtonians had returned from the verbal dressing down in the changing room at Horncastle Arena in Christchurch, whatever coach Paul Henare had said the players had discovered the ideal foundation to save their collective blushes on the way to claiming their 11th National Basketball League crown and a 20-and-oh season.
Just as the Black Caps cricket team had shown at the ICC World Cup, there was always a verse in the gospel according to the underdogs for the unthinkable but it wasn't meant to be this year either for the Taylor Corporation Hawks who succumbed 78-68 in the grand final.
It was a cruel end to the campaign for the Jarrod Kenny-captained Hawks who were seeking their second NBL title since the franchise's maiden one in 2006. The 41-25 lead at halftime was a sign of a false dawn. The gumboots from the defensive victory over the Canterbury Rams the night before had been biffed out and dancing shoes were slipped on for the seductive three-point philosophy.
The Hawks' track record was great — 45 per cent from outside the arc in the first half to the Saints' seven per cent but it had shrunk to 31-25 at the final whistle.
Wellington, on the other hand, had looked woefully out of step in just about every move on the floor.
The likes of Ethan Rusbatch, Brandon Bowman and Dion Prewster kept cropping up at every occasion the Saints tried to string anything together, tapping them on the shoulder to intercept their dancing partner.
But quite often the memorable romances come on the last dance of the night so, slowly but surely, the city slickers broke the hearts of the Hawks trying to stay upright and in tune on heavy limbs.
Hawks coach Zico Coronel said the back-to-back playoff matches had taken its toll on the bodies with Bowman again requiring a massage on his cramping legs in the final quarter.
"I think you also have to give an X amount of credit to them [Saints] for how they took the game away from us and, you know, we had just run out of legs although we were all heart," said Coronel after a step up from semifinal to grand final in two years at the helm.
If the first quarter was anything to go by, Henare read the riot act to his troops who were trailing 12-6 with three minutes left on the clock. The Hawks had set the bar at 21-10 on some Rusbatch razzle dazzle.
But Henare wasn't done in the second spell, telling off his troops for shooting at just anything rather than taking a more selective stance on ascertaining which baskets looked more do-able.
What Thomas Abercrombie could do on the offensive end, US import power forward Bowman could emulate at the other, as he had done in the semifinal victory.
Abercrombie finished the spell with a fancy reverse basket but it wasn't a very pretty look for the Saints who had lost that spell 21-15.
The third quarter, 24-18, went to the Saints as the rim fell out of love with the Hawks although a Rusbatch dunk at the halfway mark had his hometown fans grinning. The spell ended with the Hawks maintaining their lead 59-46.
Damningly the snub from the rim remained for the Hawks as Abercrombie warmed up to the task, drawing level 59-all although Bowman made another slapping block that sent point guard Shea Ili sprawling under the hoop.
The ensuing 22-point blitz from the champions had left the Hawks paralysed like stunned mullets. All of a sudden the basketball gods who had been smiling on them, it seemed, had somewhat lost their attention span.
The Saints dished out a don't-argue 29-9 final quarter. The grand final script didn't have any fairy-tale endings this winter.
Abercrombie , who received the grand final MVP, agreed the Hawks had pushed them into a hole in the first half but, obviously, it wasn't deep enough.
Perhaps what stuck out most was the depth on the Wellington bench as Henare rolled out the quality of Abercrombie at pivotal points for 31 minutes and import Sunday Dech for 18 in a match where captain Leon Henry managed just six. It was, after all, a team Coronel had considered a shadow Australian NBL outfit.
Conversely the Hawks had played their starting five above the 34-plus-minute threshold with veterans Everard Bartlett running on for seven minutes and Darryl Jones managing 51 seconds.
"You have to be very, very good to get on the court against the calibre of players like that," Coronel said, adding someone of the ilk of Jones needed that elite conditioning to foot it. It didn't help that injuries had curtailed Australia import centre Daniel Kickert's tenure before the playoffs and US import EJ Singler wasn't Final 4 fit even in the semifinal.
"Where they made it difficult for us was their defence stepping up."
He saw the Hawks' roster as a game of Jenga, the 54-block tower-building exercise where Kickert was the foundation although Singler was a double-double piece until the playoffs.
As good as the Hawks transition was from attack to defence, what made them road kill was the collective rebounding — the Saints won 58-31.
The underdogs had matched the perennial champions in field goals (39-38 per cent), edging them out 31-25 per cent from downtown but came up shy in the assists department (19-13). They stole 9-3 and blocked 7-3 but, alas, it wasn't enough.
Coronel acknowledged Abercrombie, a pre-season signing but who Wellington didn't disclose until they were into their campaign, as the joker in the opposition's pack.
"If they didn't have him they wouldn't be celebrating right now," he lamented, after the Saints had snipped the net and showered in champagne spray.
Coronel was extremely proud his players had let them mentor them, in a transparent culture where they were told what their flaws were in order to improve as a collective.
He emphasised the Final 4 wasn't just about playing the opposition but also skirting the boundaries with the umpires and Wellington had done it with aplomb.
Bowman was outstanding in claiming a back-to-back match-high 30 points, a rebound shy of another double-double and six blocks and five assists to boot.
Coronel said Bowman had proven why it was worth waiting for him to arrive here a few rounds into the NBL after his stint in Israel where he lives.
"We depended a lot on him and he never complained about that," he said, revealing with Bowman and Singler they had been averaging 21-point margins, better than any other team in the NBL.
Coronel said luck had little to do with making the grand final. It came down to the support of the PG Arena faithful and the franchise's loyal and generous Bay sponsors to compete against those on better budgets.
"With a little bit more heart and support maybe we can win it next year."
Result: Wellington Saints 78 (Thomas Abercrombie 22pts, 7reb; Robert Low 14pts, 15 reb; Nicholas Kay 13pts, 15 reb, 7 asts; Rueben Te Rangi 12pts; Shea Ili 9pts, 8 asts) Hawks 68 (Brandon Bowman 30pts, 9 reb, 6 blocks, 5 asts; Ethan Rusbatch 18pts; Dion Prewster 11pts, 7 reb; EJ Singler 6pts).