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Agony & Ecstasy

2.8 seconds. That’s all that stood between agony and ecstasy at Perth Arena on Saturday night. Staring down the barrel of a troubling 0-2 start, the Perth Wildcats used those 2.8 seconds to execute a memorable game-tying play. It was a play that saw import Jaron Johnson rise up, nail a clutch three-pointer and send it into overtime. The game was extended, momentum was shifted and the home team ran away with an extraordinary early-season win. On the flip side, the Taipans. They thought they had it. No Jawai, no Weigh and in front of a raucous Red Army of nearly 13,000, the Taipans were up three with 2.8 remaining. Agony. Ecstasy. Such a thin line. And in the context of a tightly fought season – one in which playoff spots are likely to be decided by miniscule margins – those 2.8 seconds could prove pivotal in the long run. Of course, at this level end-of-game situations don’t just play themselves out. Far from it. They are micro-managed by some of the finest basketball minds on the planet. On the floor, they’re executed by some of the world’s most elite players at the top of their games. So what went right for the ‘Cats? What fell down for the Snakes? What decisions – made by whom – defined those remarkable 2.8 seconds? First things first, Cairns made the call to knock down their free throws. Up 1 with 2.8 on the clock, Mark Worthington stepped to the line. What do you do? Perth still have a time-out so if you make the second, the Wildcats will advance the ball into their front-court. If you miss it, is 2.8 seconds enough time to make a play from 94 feet? Tough call to make. Worthington coolly knocked them both down. Time-out Perth. In the huddle, Wildcats coach Trevor Gleeson drew up the play. The whiteboard gave the visual and the message was clear: spread ‘em out and get the ball to Jaron Johnson on the arc. “It was great execution and Jaron made a great shot,” Gleeson said post-game. “The guys do a great job of executing plays. The game’s on the line and they trust each other. They found a way to get him the ball so it was good.” For Johnson, it was all about repaying the faith. “I want to be that type of player and be put in that position to shoot like that,” he said. “My teammates told me, ‘hey, let it fly’. I had just had a turnover the play before that so I felt really down about it but my teammates were just there to pick me up. Coach drew up the play, we ran it and that’s what ended up happening.” Down the other end, Cairns head coach Aaron Fearne had drawn up the resistance. Fair to say, it didn’t go to plan. “I’m pretty pissed off,” Fearne told media post-game. “We broke down on that last play where they hit the three… There was a certain way we wanted to defend it and we obviously talked about them having to make a three to tie it up.” Fearne had Travis Trice and Cam Gliddon on the three-point line while Worthington and Nnanna Egwu were on the lane-lines. Nobody was pressuring the in-bounder specifically, but Fuquan Edwin was nearby, preventing the pass to the corner. According to Perth captain Damian Martin, who threw the inbounds pass on that final play, Gleeson had drawn it up for Johnson but where he was supposed to go was being guarded. “Jaron made a great read and found the open spot behind the line and nailed it,” Martin told NBL Media. Watch the tape again and this time, keep your eye on Jaron Johnson. Johnson circles around and starts heading towards the peak of the arc. With Trice waiting for his arrival, Johnson flips the script and Martin has a clean look at his man flashing directly towards the ball. “Had Jaron just been robotic and run the play according to how it was drawn up precisely then he would’ve been guarded and who knows what would’ve happened,” Martin said. “His instincts at a game-defining moment were just as impressive as the shot itself.” For the Taipans, it was like snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. “We get stretched way out and we let them pop right into the hole and he’s wide open. We have to learn from it,” Fearne said. AFL footballer Robert Murphy recently described it as a “wafer-thin line between romance and baggage.” Remember Ekene Ibekwe’s buzzer-beater to claim the 2015 championship for New Zealand? End-of-game sideline plays must be starting to feel like ‘baggage’ for the Taipans. For the defending champs, two losses in the opening round would’ve felt like ‘baggage’ of their own. Instead, 2.8 seconds helped deliver the romance of an unlikely victory. “Thankfully we’re not 0-2,” Gleeson said afterwards. “We hung tough at the end and believed in each other when 90 per cent of the crowd probably thought the game was gone.”   By Liam Santamaria
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