A clutch defensive play from Mitch Norton with seconds remaining helped the Illawarra Hawks escape with a vital 85-80 victory over the Brisbane Bullets on Friday night at WIN Entertainment Centre.
Norton drew a charge from Bullets import Jermaine Beal with less than 13 seconds remaining when the Hawks held a slender 81-80 buffer on their home floor.
From there Illawarra were able to ice the game from the free throw line after only claiming the lead for the first time early in the final term.
Tamworth’s Nick Kay was instrumental in their late fightback in the absence of star centre AJ Ogilvy, who fouled out late in the third.
The reigning NBL rookie of the year had 16 points, six rebounds, five assists and five steals.
Gun import Rotnei Clarke was solid again with 20 points, including 4/7 from three point range.
Brisbane veteran Daniel Kickert equaled Clarke’s game-high 20 points while Adam Gibson was outstanding for the visitors with 17 points and five assists before being helped from the floor late in the piece.
Illawarra couldn't buy a basket early on and Brisbane rightly took advantage of the hosts lacklustre offence.
Back-to-back driving lay-ups to bench guard Shaun Bruce had the Bullets 18-8 up just five minutes into the contest.
It was a buffer they'd maintain up until the first break against a misfiring Hawks side who shot just 6/19 in the opening quarter.
Those offensive struggles continued in the second as the Bullets built a 12-point buffer on the back of some tidy work from Kickert and Gibson.
When the Hawks got close towards the end of the half, it was Kickert that hit a clutch bucket inside to give Brisbane a 49-37 advantage at the main change.
The half time break was just what Illawarra needed.
They went on a 10-0 run to start the third to get within two points before Beal silenced the home crowd with a clutch three.
The American’s treble spurred Brisbane back to life again and by the 5:30 mark in the quarter their advantage was double digits once more.
Matters swung further into Brisbane’s favour when Ogilvy was forced to sit after being called for a soft foul and then hit with a technical for dissent.
With him off the court, Illawarra looked to have their backs against the wall to peg back the Bullets’ 66-61 advantage at the final change.
But just when the Hawks seemed dead and buried they spurred to life.
An unstoppable Kay, who bullied his way inside in the absence of Ogilvy, scored seven quick points to give Illawarra their first lead of the match at 70-68.
It set up an intense final six minutes.
Brisbane took back a slender advantage with two minutes remaining but Illawarra wrestled back the lead through Clarke before Norton pulled off arguably the play of the game.