The New Zealand Breakers have won their fourth NBL championship in five years thanks to import duo Cedric Jackson and Ikene Ibekwe, but the Cairns Taipans did not disgrace themselves by any means in a fiercely contested best of three series.
Game One at the sold out in 90 minutes Cairns Convention Centre was probably one of Cairns biggest matches in their history as the contest for the Dr John Raschke trophy began with a Burston bang.
Matt Burston opening the scoring off the Taipans usual offence going straight to the post, Thomas Abercrombie then sent an early defensive message rejecting Burston off the next play showing the Breakers were switched on defensively.
Burston and Corey Webster starting in world championship shooting form traded baskets early but the momentum already was shifting the Breakers way thanks to the usual off-ball heavy work of Captain Mika Vukona.
New Zealand were on an 11-0 run, 90% field goal percentage and timeout had to be called by Cairns coach Aaron Fearne.
Fearne pleaded with his team to get back on defence as they looked to overcome some early finals jitters.
After a few traded baskets, Torrey Craig slammed off a missed 3pt attempt from Shaun Bruce to ignite the Taipans back into the contest.
New Zealand however still held sway with an 11 point lead at quarter time, 17-28 the score.
Jackson hustled hard off one of the first plays of quarter two and created the and1 to break New Zealand out to a 14 point lead.
Mitch Young on the next play returned the favour and a couple of plays later, Captain Cameron Gliddon opened his account the same way.
New Zealand however weathered the comeback thanks to Ibekwe with five points (including another spectacular Jackson to Ibekwe alley) to take him to 12 points for the first half, New Zealand leading 50-34 at the break.
Cairns launched a massive comeback in the third quarter thanks mainly to Gliddon who scored eight points in the quarter.
Scottie Wilbekin came to life as well with a 3 point basket as the Taipans bit back with a 20-5 run.
Momentum was completely with Cairns going into the last change and a pumping home crowd. The Taipans were leading amazingly 61-60.
New Zealand brought back the energy through bench spark Rebuen Te Rangi pulling off a huge rejection of an attempted Craig dunk.
Bench guard Rhys Carter also probably played the most important minutes in his career nailing 10pts for the quarter to lead New Zealand on a 12-2 run despite Webster in foul trouble.
Alex Loughton then hit a timely 3pt basket followed by Wilbekin and Cairns felt they had a taste of slithering their way back into the contest.
Jackson with all his playoff experience however closed the game out in an MVP worthy performance. Game One to the Breakers 86-71 and 1-0 up in the series.
Fearne was disappointed that his team didn’t execute for more than one quarter, “I believe what we are trying to do is right, and it worked there for a patch, but we have got to do it for four quarters and in the Finals, you can do it for one quarter.”
Breakers coach Dean Vickermann thought the two all-star NBL backcourt guards nulified each other pushing the contest in their favour.
“Both of us struggled to press each other up the floor a little bit with dynamic point guards who are press breaks in themselves, so it becomes a halfcourt contest and how we defend the on-ball becomes really important… we made them settle for shots we wanted them to shoot.”
For New Zealand, Jackson was the standout with 22pts and 7 rebounds and was well supported by the dynamic Ibekwe (19pts, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks) and Abercrombie (13pts).
Carter after that explosive last quarter finished with a crucial 12pt contribution.
For the Taipans, while not as efficient through four quarters Wilbekin led the scoring with 16pts supported by Gliddon (13pts and 9 rebounds), Burston (11pts) and Loughton (10pts).
Game Two would be an NBL all-time classic final at the North Shore Events Centre. The true home of the New Zealand Breakers as we went into a time-warp back to the scene of the Breakers first ever NBL championship.
Webster opened the scoring with a 3pt basket and it was hot shooting again early for New Zealand.
Two early fouls on him saw him go to the bench early again as game one hero Carter showed the hustle and aggression required to win a championship proving many a doubter wrong of his ability in big games.
Early fouls also troubled Loughton and Stephen Weigh (unsighted in game one), New Zealand through Abercrombie and Jackson opened up a 17-9 lead.
Offensive rebounds and putbacks by Cameron Tragardh put the Taipans back in the contest on a 8-2 run. New Zealand up 23-17 in the first quarter.
Craig opened the quarter with a pair of 3pt baskets (in what would be his most productive offensive game since his 19 points in his player of the week win against the Adelaide 36ers back in December) and was keeping Cairns in the game.
Jackson however hit a clock running down 3pt basket and another step-back 3pt basket and the NSEC was about to explode.
Both teams traded baskets but Jackson had been the difference at the half with New Zealand up 44-39.
Tragardh added to his 10pt first half with 6pts from his interior work but foul trouble started to engulf the Taipans with Burston picking up an early four fouls.
Craig continued to keep producing offensively with another 3pt basket whilst rookie forward Tai Wesley kept NZ just in front as Cairns charged to stay in the finals series.
A high contested off balance jumpshot from Wilbekin brough the Taipans closer with Weigh giving them the lead with a 3pt basket, Wilbekin then closed the quarter in MVP style after a quiet first half keeping Cairns in the final series.
Cairns up by one point (59-58) setting up a classic NBL final fourth quarter.
It became a shooting feast as Abercrombie, Craig, Gliddon, Bruce and again Gliddon (4-8 3pt shooting) traded 3pt baskets, Jackson blew an open layup with a seriously good sprint back by Wilbekin to pressure the fast break layup and the game was set up for a frantic finish.
A defensive break down allowed Abercrombie to drop a long 3pt basket and the margin was two with just under two minutes to go, Jackson missed a three pointer, Ibekewe then missed an alley but what would no doubt be in a future NBL finals highlights package Jackson magically followed it in for a tip layup, Tragardh was fouled and made one from the stripe with Jackson then drawing a foul from Loughton.
He hit the first but missed the second grabbing an offensive rebound and a mad tip scrum followed.
The umpires plucked a foul out on and Mika Vukona stepped upto the foul line.
He dropped two Captain’s free throws and Breakers lead with 20 seconds left on the clock.
Wilbekin and Jackson faced off in an isolation with Jackson reaching around and being pinged with the reach in foul.
Wilbekin then iced two free throws to level it at 81-81 with one playing second left.
A pass from Jackson to Ibekwe off a screen for a turn around fade away jumper sealed the win and the championship for New Zealand and a storming of the court naturally occurred.
Jackson was appropriately awarded the Larry Senstock medal for Grand Final MVP as Vukona and Vickermann lifted the John Raschke trophy for the fourth time in their history.
MVP Jackson lead the way again with 15 points, seven assists, six rebounds and three steals while Abercrombie top-scored with 19 points and was well supported by Game Two hero Ibekwe (14), Wesley (12) and Webster (11).
Tragardh led the way for the Taipans with 17 points and five rebounds while Gliddon added 16 points, Craig (16) and Wilbekin (10).
Written By Tristan Prentice