Superstar guard Bryce Cotton was unstoppable as the Perth Wildcats surged to an enthralling 99-91 victory over Illawarra Hawks at WIN Entertainment Centre on Sunday afternoon.
Cotton was at his dominant best again, tallying a season-high 36 points to go with five rebounds and three assists in Perth’s seventh consecutive victory over the Hawks.
The talented American, who dropped 40 points on the Hawks in last season’s grand final series, scored 20 of his points in the second half after Perth led by two in a hotly-contested opening twenty minutes.
Fellow import Derek Cooke Jr played a strong cameo. The big-man didn’t miss a shot from the field on his way to 19 points and seven rebounds.
In his return from a one-game ban, Illawarra’s Demitrius Conger (30 points) did his best to keep Illawarra in the contest but was offered little support.
The Hawks (5-8) had the chance to move to within one win of the top-four, but struggled to stay with the defending premiers in the second half.
“We put ourselves in a position [to win] but we had some minor breakdowns in that second half at times and they punish you on that,” Hawks coach Rob Beveridge said.
“We just discussed it in the change room and we had a lack of communication at times. We have to play a lot of switching defence and mix it up to try and confuse them. I thought we did a pretty good job of that but it just shows that you have got to have that consistency against Perth for 40 minutes.”
Cotton had a hand in everything in the first quarter, shooting 4/4 from the field to lead all scorers with 12 points.
His sharpshooting helped inspire a 12-2 Wildcats run midway through the first period which propelled the visitors to a 20-15 early advantage. Conger was similarly productive for the Hawks as the star import tallied nine points and three rebounds in the first.
Just one point separated last season's grand final rivals at the first break.
A awe-inspiring reverse lay-up from Rotnei Clarke (12 points) drew praise from the Hawks faithful and put the hosts in front by one in the shadows of half time.
But Cotton scored his first points of the quarter late in the piece to drag Perth to a 46-44 lead.
Conger and Nick Kay (nine points) were active offensively for the Hawks to start the second half, but Cotton soon pulled Perth clear.
The diminutive American shook off Indiana Faithfull before sinking a difficult lay-up to give the Wildcats a 63-58 buffer. It was a sign of things to come.
He profited off some sloppy work from the Hawks with a dagger from downtown to propel Perth to an game-high eight point lead.
A corner three from Tim Coenraad had cut that margin down to two points early in the third, but Illawarra never got closer than that.
Perth (10-3) continued to keep the hosts at bay and moved on level terms with New Zealand at the top of the competition.