The result was never a done deal but the hosts pulling out the knuckle dusters in the octane-fuelled lanes of contention was always a given in Christchurch tonight.
That’s because the Wheeler Motor Canterbury Rams coach Mark Dickel, a former Tall Black point guard, didn’t take prisoners in his playing days and wouldn’t have any qualms about his troops questioning the pedigree of any opposition players coming to Cowles Stadium to think they could simply roll up and walk away with two points.
To their credit, Taylor Corporation Hawks didn’t take a step back last night in their 91-76 victory in week six of the Sal’s National Basketball League (NBL) match.
It probably didn’t help that homeboy Ethan Rusbatch now preens his feathers with the Hawks but, needless to say, the skirmish didn’t overshadow the proceedings as the Hawks have a chance to leapfrog the hosts on the table to find their perch among the top four again from fifth place.
Hawks coach Zico Coronel said Tall Black Rusbatch, who scored 22 points and made nine assists, had an army of loyal fans behind him after the second-half dust up.
“I guess when you have shared many moments together, positive and negative, then you really form a bond with that person so I guess they are two people you don’t want to lose to as their friends or their enemies.
“You’ll have to ask Ethan which one he considers which one but he very much didn’t want to lose tonight. He is really a champion person,” said Coronel who met Rusbatch’s mother, Sharon, of Christchurch, and was delighted to impress on her the swingman was always a gifted player but the Bay franchise signed him because he was a good human.
Okay that was cryptic but, loosely translated, it meant Cowles Stadium is the Rams’ house but Rusbatch also knows where the dirty linens are kept and had every intention of chucking them into the spindry cycle in the laundry.
Rusbatch’s professionalism was something Taranaki coach Trent Adams had impressed on Coronel in 2014.
“I think that he’s such a quality human being that the boys rally around him to make sure he got a win so that’s probably where a little bit of the feelings came from.”
The 25-year-old Gold Coast Commonwealth Games bronze medallist had life-long friends who were prepared to sacrifice their Friday night to support him, which also was a testimony to his character.
Coronel said the Rams had got “a little bit sulky”, which was something they needed to be if they were going to change the nature of the game.
“It was another thing for us to be proud of because it could have gone one of two ways in terms of losing the plot or glavanising us.
“Our focus was very good, we were united and we didn’t get distracted when they came with their runs because we were able to minimise it as much as possible to maintain the lead into the beginning of the fourth quarter.”
He felt it was a vital clash to define the parameters of the Final Four playoffs so no love was going to be lost on either side.
Coronel said it always felt like captain Jarrod Kenny and his men had taken ownership despite Rams import Julian Williams-Washburn claiming a match-high 24 points, dropping five out of six shots from downtown.
“He was shooting the ball very well and we knew he could,” he said of the forward coming off a season with Austin Spurrs in the United States.
Coronel also lauded a toiling Rams import Winston Shepard III who scored 18 points, took nine rebounds, eight assists and four steals.
“He was probably the danger and threat and had his moments but I guess we kept him in check,” he said.
With the Rams falling into foul trouble and the Hawks putting up the shutters, the hosts were toast.
He singled out Kenny and swingman Dion Prewster for having the number of Xavier Thames, who settled for a quiet night, although the Hawks coach expected him to come back stronger the next time.
It pleased him immensely that the Hawks had kept a leash on the Cantabrians in every quarter bar the third, below the 20 threshold. That was because of an intense defence drill on Tuesday.
Kenny had another strong game with 18 points, which included 100 per cent rate of four three pointers, and Angus Brandt added 20 to the collective. Prewster chimed in with 13 points and US import power forward Jamie Skeen contributed nine.
The Hawks, who move to five wins and three losses, play the Mike Pero Nelson Giants in a 7pm tipoff at Trafalgar Centre tomorrow night.
Coronel said while the Hawks had lost two games in a row they had to be put in perspective because they were against last year’s finalists.
While the Hawks weren’t good enough to beat the teams on those nights, he said it was vital to note a lot of their tough games were bracketed in the front end of the season.
“Those are games that most teams have lost to the [Cigna Wellington] Saints and the [SIT Zerofees Southland] Sharks on the road but, maybe, haven’t played them yet or just one of them, not three.”
Tonight’s victory gave the Hawks the licence to clarify that assertion.
He said the Giants will be tough tomorrow night with outgoing former New Zealand Breakers hardman and Tall Black captain Mika Vukona back in the equation.
“He wasn’t intending to play to play but I think it’s the measure of the importance of this game looking at the playoffs.”
Having beaten them last month, Coronel said locking horns with the Giants again tomorrow was a good test as a double header because, after all, the Final Four playoffs was also of that ilk.
“The last time they were on the night of a back-to-back [match] but this time they’ve been laying in wait.”
He said it wasn’t just about energy and recovery but also about time so the Hawks support staff were doing the ground work.
In the other game, the Sharks had a comfortable 92-71 victory over the Augusta Taranaki Mountainairs in Invercargill tonight.
Result: Rams 76 (Julian Williams-Washburn 24 pts, 6 reb; Winston Shepard III 18 pts, 9 reb, 8 asts; Maxwell Darling 11 pts) Hawks 91 (Ethan Rusbatch 22 pts, 9 asts; Angus Brandt 20 pts, 6 reb; Jarrod Kenny 18 pts, 6 reb, 7 asts; Dion Prewster 13 pts, 6 reb; 4 asts; Jamie Skeen 9 pts, 2 blks).
Quarters (Rams first), 1st: 18-24. 2nd: 35-43 (17-22). 3rd: 45-47 (28-25). Final: 76-91 (13-23).