The sluggish 22-14 first-quarter start was in some respects symptomatic of the Hawks' season but, it seems, that is not why they bowed out against the perennial favourites in the semifinal in Wellington tonight.
The assertion from coach Zico Coronel, after the Cigna Wellington Saints predictably beat the Taylor Corporation-sponsored Hawke's Bay franchise team 99-73 in the first game of the Final Four, was success stemmed from the drawing board even before the Sal's Pizza National Basketball League (NBL) had tipped off in late April this year.
US import LJ Peak and outstanding point guard Shea Ili spearheaded the Kevin Braswell-coached defending champions at the ASB Trust Bank Arena in the capital city towards an 11th NBL crown — their fifth consecutive one and an insatiable desire to nail an elsuive three-peat — when they face SIT Zerofees Southland Sharks in the final from 5pm tomorrow.
The Leon Henry-skippered Saints marched to a 41-33 (19-19) lead at halftime, kept the pressure on 62-51 (21-18) in the next spell before the ritualistic don't-argue blowout of 37-22 as the closing statement.
The Sharks pipped Mike Pero Nelson Giants 98-93 in the second semifinal at the same venue tonight.
But Coronel, in his maiden season as head coach on debut with the Hawks after a 13-year stint as assistant, felt his troops were in with a sniff at halftime with captain Jarrod Kenny and their player of the season, centre Angus Brandt, despite the eight-point difference.
"The Saints played very, very well," he said, agreeing they were the better team and he could not produce any evidence to counter that supremacy.
"We've lost to them four times now and this is the least competitive of them all so we didn't get a fair chance to see if others could compete with them so that was disappointing," he lamented, after taking the franchise side to the promised land of the Final Four after it had been in exile since 2014.
As romantic as it sounded pre-Final Four, is it realistic to harbour NBL ambitions with just two imports and without the prowess of a Peak prototype?
"We would love to have a third import and we'd love to have a player like LJ Peak," Coronel said. "Hidden behind the singlet and uniform of the Final Four is a big discrepancy of budgets."
For the Saints, shooting guard Peak claimed a match-high 31 points while Henry contributed 20, Ili 18 and New Zealand Breakers-bound Sudan-born/Australian import power forward Majok Majok adding 12 as Braswell gave them all 30-plus minutes on the court.
Conversely Boomer Brandt was in early foul trouble and only managed 24 minutes as the Hawks highest point scorer with 16. Braswell rolled on old dump truck Damien Ekanasio for six minutes to ruffle feathers, a portfolio the stocky forward has held, it seems, forever. No one knows that better than Coronel who questioned the competence of the whistle blowers.
"Damien has so many benefits and he's such a physical player and he's prepared to sacrifice himself."
The Hawks mentor said Ekanasio had grabbed Brandt's arm and yanked him to the floor but referee Yalla Edwards saw a double foul.
"It wasn't a double foul and [Damien] gets a foul but the Saints don't care about that," he said, feeling Brandt was dominant and the Saints didn't have an answer for the Boomer.
Dion Prewster scored 14 and took eight rebounds, Kenny added 13 points and Ethan Rusbatch 11 for the 30-plus-minute shift workers. US import power forward Jamie Skeen also got 32 minutes for eight points and seven rebounds.
Last-round hero Everard Bartlett lost his mojo and managed only one basket from downtown from five attempts in 20 minutes as the leading bench player.
"If Everard can do that everytime we won't be able to afford him and neither will anyone else," Coronel said.
Hyrum Harris, in 15 minutes, and Kenny were a foul away from an early shower.
Coronel was pleased the Hawks had big-game player Jordan Ngatai early in foul trouble and kept a leash on Henry.
"We had a sneaky suspicion that LJ Peak was capable of a lot more and he was very athletic and very good downhill because when he gets going at [1.95m] and [100kg] and gives you the knock it's very hard to break," he said of the 22-year-old from North Carolina who reminded the visitors of his presence with a reverse dunk in the first quarter and a breakaway 360-degree two-handed slam in the second spell.
Ili backed up his game as the best little general in the land with nine assists, six rebounds and four assists to boot.
Coronel felt it was possible to contain him in patches but no one had shown the propensity to shut down the NBA triallist outright this season.
"In the past two or three seasons very few people have shown they are capable of stopping Shea to a degree in our league," he said, drawing parallels with former Saints assassin Corey Webster.
Coronel said it would be interesting to know if it was Ili's final NBL stint after tomorrow's final because he was good enough to ply his trade in Europe after the Breakers' season.
Of the Final Four contenders, he suspected the Bay franchise had the smallest budget, albeit not above that of the Saints and Sharks.
"The Giants have a heck of a roster and that wouldn't have come cheaply. Southland would have had double what we have and the Saints probably not as much as they ordinarily do because they didn't have some of the players they were expecting to have."
While there as no "one-to-one correlation between budgets", Coronel said, there was a "strong correlation" to an open cheque-book policy to winning.
That was often the parameters of operation for the coaches who also had to pay their dues to raise their families.
"Everyone expects sports to be different but it's not because it's just another organisation."
He drew analogies with Vodafone making a $20,000 better offer than Telecom to head hunt an employee and expecting the fiscal carrot to prevail.
"Players are going to go where they can support themselves and to teams who have the best budgets."
Coronel said the Hawks were fortunate to have the personnel they had this season and now faced the arduous task of retaining the core of the team.
The players, he said, had expressed in the changing rooms how much they had appreciated each other's company to the extent where they were "like brothers".
"That's not always possible because someone in the group is not of good character but ours is so that'll help to bond the team."
However, it remained to be seen of the composition would remain unchanged next winter so the franchise's work was cut out for an immediate undertaking.
All said and done, Coronel was hopeful the Saints would prevail tomorrow because of his previous association with the players, including his role as assistant to Breakers-bound Braswell.
"But there are so many great and deserving people in a lot of clubs, especially as it's cool to see people who are winning their first one and that's amazing feeling."
But for basketball to be the winner in the country should another team break the Saints' stranglehold?
"Not necessarily. The Saints are the model of our league ... so we will all benefit for the good of basketball or whatever endeavour if we all try to look at what they do and why are they the best and try to learn from them," he said, emphasising owner Nick Mills Snr made huge sacrifices to be the common dominator of the 11 campaigners.
"Some people invest their money into having nice things and Nick invests his into having a nice basketball team so people in Wellington appreciate that and you cannot begrudge them winning."
Perhaps Mills Snr will want to raise the stakes to enter a second Kiwi team in the Australian National Basketball League with the Breakers?
That, my fiends, is another subject for debate another time.