A last-gasp Alex Loughton free-throw consigned Tamworth’s Nick Kay and his Illawarra Hawks to a heartbreaking opening round defeat to Cairns Taipans on Friday night.
Loughton hit one of two from the line to propel the hosts to a dramatic 88-87 victory at Cairns Convention Centre in round one.
Hawks guard Rhys Martin fouled the Taipans veteran with seconds remaining as scores were level and Loughton held his nerve from the charity stripe.
An AJ Ogilvy dunk had just brought Illawarra on terms in an enthralling final quarter.
Loughton was outstanding throughout the second half to keep an underrated Taipans outfit in the contest.
He finished with a team-high 19 points off the bench while Mitch McCarron (14 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists) was also solid.
Ogilvy was the Hawks’ best with 22 points, 11 rebounds and four assists.
Kay finished with four points, four rebounds and four assists in almost 17 minutes on the floor.
New Hawks vice captain Mitch Norton (12 points) led the way in the first quarter with seven of the Hawks’ first 12 points to help them to an early three point buffer.
Unfortunately he picked up his second foul inside four minutes, but Clarke came off the bench to ensure the momentum stayed with Illawarra.
He hit three straight trebles to propel the visitors to a 21-13 advantage.
But the Taipans stayed in the hunt through some determined offensive plays by McCarrron.
A late dunk from Nate Jawai (12 points) moved Cairns in front by two, before Clarke levelled it at 29-all at the first change.
The Hawks kicked away again early in the second when Conger drained a wide open three.
It remained a two possession game as both teams traded missed shots in a scrappy second term.
Norton kissed one off the glass in the final seconds to give Illawarra a four point advantage at the main break.
Back-to-back lay-ups from Nnanna Egwu saw Cairns level it at 46-all just 50 seconds into the third.
An Ogilvy dunk and yet another Clarke treble gave Illawarra breathing space again, but they couldn’t shake the hosts.
Loughton’s mid-range game allowed the Taipans sneak into the final change 66-62 in arrears.
The final term was played at the same intensity.
It felt like deja vu when Clarke drained his seventh three of the night to give Illawarra the lead.
But Loughton – playing one of his best games in recent seasons – put on a shooting clinic to keep Cairns in the hunt.
He and Gliddon paced the Taipans’ offence as the match edged towards overtime.
Ogilvy capitalised on a Gliddon mistake to square the ledger at 87-a-piece at the death, but it was Loughton who had the last laugh to extend the Taipans record to 17 straight home victories to start the campaign.