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GAME REPORT

Cotton and Wildcats show they can't be ignored

Write them off at your peril, the Perth Wildcats looked impressive to open their #NBL21 campaign with Bryce Cotton his usual self and John Mooney and Todd Blanchfield coming up big in an 88-76 win over the South East Melbourne Phoenix at RAC Arena on Sunday.

The Wildcats had to wait until near the end of Round 2 to make their first appearance of the 2021 NBL season, and against a Phoenix team already having played twice and split their games in Adelaide, it was a tough challenge.

But the two-time reigning champions took the best shots from the Phoenix and after trailing by eight early in the third quarter, they finished off scoring 47 to 27 the rest of the way on the same night they unfurled their 2020 championship banner.

The Wildcats had been written off more than ever before coming into the 2021 season on the back of the loss of Nick Kay, Damian Martin, Terrico White, Miles Plumlee and Majok Majok, but they showed they won't go down without a fight in front of a near capacity COVID home crowd of 7150.

Beginning their championship defence, it was two-time MVP Bryce Cotton who reminded everyone why he's the best in the league with 27 points, seven assists and five steals on 8/15 shooting and 9/11 from the foul line.

He dominated his match up with Keifer Sykes. He was coming off a brilliant game in the win over Adelaide on Wednesday, but couldn’t back it up with 10 points, four rebounds and four assists while going 3/15 from the field.

A lot is going to rest on the shoulders of John Mooney down low for Perth this season and he looks capable of handling it on the back of a debut with 13 points and 15 rebounds, of which eight were offensive.

His rebound and stunning putback dunk on a missed three-point attempt showed his athleticism as well on top of how hard he fights down low.

Todd Blanchfield is an NBL veteran of 283 games but his Wildcats debut was strong with 16 points and four rebounds. Mitch Norton added 10 points and three assists and out-of-retirement centre Tom Jervis eight points and five rebounds.

Wildcats coach Trevor Gleeson was relieved to get back to playing not only at RAC Arena for the first time since Grand Final Game 2 on March 13, but first time in front of home fans on March 5 last year.

"I thought we played well in the first quarter, not that well in the second quarter and that's a little bit of rust for the first game," Gleeson said. 

"But I was really pleased with the second half to hold them to 34 points. There were some big moments there and we stayed strong to get some stops, and find the open man offensively."

While it was a 12-point loss in the end for the Phoenix, they were in control of the game for a lot of the first half and leading by eight early in the third term.

Their turnovers did rack up 19 by the end of the game but there was still plenty for coach Simon Mitchell to like.

Mitch Creek had 17 points, Cam Gliddon 15 and Adam Gibson continued his hot shooting start to the season as the league's most experienced player with 13 points while hitting 3/5 from deep.

"You saw in the second and third that we were playing decent defence to make them shoot tougher shots, and our offence was flowing," Gibson said. 

"We were a lot fresher and playing with more pace but then in the last five minutes we slowed down, we didn’t run as hard, it was bogged down and we chopped and changed our stuff.

"I think that's just us getting used to playing a lot more with each other and working out what works, and sticking with it. Perth run the same stuff and get great looks, that's the benchmark and where we have to get to as a team. That'll come the more we play together."

With Bryce Cotton starting well with five quick points, Perth had the start they wanted in front of the Red Army. And with John Mooney dominant on the glass with five of his seven first quarter boards being offensive, it helped the 'Cats lead the Phoenix 23-17 after one.

South East Melbourne worked into it nicely to start the second, though, and it was 439-game veteran Adam Gibson the spark. He hit two quick threes for eight points to help the Phoenix assume the lead.

They then held onto the advantage 42-38 by half-time before the Phoenix continued on the momentum to open the second half. Reuben TeRangi nailed a three and then when Yanni Wetzell and Kyle Adnam also scored, the visitors were in control at 49-41.

But the game took a dramatic turn from there with Perth coming out and scoring 13 of the next 15 points capped off with consecutive Luke Travers buckets, and a three-point Cotton play.

Tom Jervis then scored back-to-back buckets to close the third term with Perth up 60-57 having been down eight only minutes earlier.

Clint Steindl marked his 200th game with a three to open the fourth quarter but the Phoenix refused to lie down. With Gibson hitting another three and then Mitch Creek sparking a 6-0 run, suddenly they led again by two with five minutes on the clock.

But again Perth responded with the next six points including a Todd Blanchfield three ball. New captain Jesse Wagstaff then extended the lead before the Wildcats put the game on ice with Cotton free-throws, a couple of finishes from Mooney and finally another Cotton bomb from downtown.

The two teams now prepare to do it all again back at RAC Arena on Friday.

HUNGRY JACK'S NBL ROUND 2

PERTH WILDCATS 88 (Cotton 27, Blanchfield 16, Mooney 13)

SOUTH EAST MELBOURNE PHOENIX 76 (Creek 17, Gliddon 15, Gibson 13) 

BOX SCORE 

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