Hungry Jack's NBL
Ibekwe, Jackson deliver on Championship promise
Ekene Ibekwe and Cedric Jackson made a pact on arrival ahead of the 2014/15 NBL season to lead the New Zealand Breakers back to the Championship, and while they did achieve their lofty goal even they couldn’t have predicted how it would happen. It is a tried and tested approach for NBL clubs to sign an import point guard and centre, and fill the rest of your team with the best locals you can find, and that is the most basic way of looking at the successful yet so simple way the Breakers have won four Championships in five years now. New Zealand knew it still had the core of its three-peat Championship-winning team from 2011, 2012 and 2013 during a disappointing 2014 season with the likes of captain Mika Vukona, Tom Abercrombie, Alex Pledger, Corey Webster and Reuben TeRangi remaining on board. That made it a simple equation – get the best quality point guard and big man they could find. And Jackson was always keen to come back after testing the waters in Europe in 2014 and the 2013 NBL MVP and two-time Championship winner instantly gave the Breakers that belief they could again compete for the 2015 title. Then Ibekwe signed as a centre who could provide a strong presence at the defensive end with his shot blocking and rebounding while able to finish strongly around the rim. The Breakers wouldn’t have won the 2015 NBL Championship by sweeping both the Adelaide 36ers and Cairns Taipans in the Finals without the efforts of Vukona, Abercrombie, Pledger, Webster, TeRangi and other new arrivals Rhys Carter, Tai Wesley and Duane Bailey. However, what Jackson delivered as a point guard in an all-round capacity and as a match-winner in all areas of the game and Ibekwe as likely the best pure centre in the NBL can't be underestimated. It was then only fitting that on the very last play of the 2014/15 NBL season it was Jackson who in-bounded the ball to Ibekwe who nailed a stunning fade away mid-range jumper to win New Zealand the Championship as time expired at North Shore Events Centre. Ibekwe was likely the player with the most highlights in the NBL all season long for his thunderous dunks and massive blocked shots, and that's why it might have surprised many when he became the Championship-winning hero by taking the buzzer-beating jump shot. He wasn’t surprised in the slightest, though, and feels just as comfortable taking that shot as something closer to the rim. "Originally the play was supposed to be for me to go towards the basket but I just felt comfortable stopping and popping, and I would make that shot nine times out of 10. I shot it and it went in," Ibekwe said. "I knew it was an opportunity to win it for my team and I know Dean is pretty confident with me either going to the basket or shooting a little jumper so I did it that way, and now we won. That's the biggest shot of my career. For a Championship, there's no bigger shot than that." Ever since arriving in New Zealand, all Ibekwe has heard about was the dominance of the Breakers winning a Championship three-peat the three years prior to 2014, and then he saw those title winning photos constantly at practice. That only added to his motivation to help the Breakers win the Championship this season and he's delighted that has come to fruition. "We talked about it all year, every time we came into practice there was always these big old pictures of the previous Championships. I obviously wanted to get my picture up there and what better way to do it than making the last second shot for the Championship," he said. "It just feels good. It's been a long season and this is the best way to end it. We knew we should have been here from the beginning but it's just amazing how it's all ended up." Ibekwe has become quite the basketball journeyman since his college career at the University of Maryland playing everywhere from the United States, Israel, France, Turkey, Puerto Rico, Iran, Germany and Spain, but he has never enjoyed the game more than this season. He immediately fitted into the Breakers organisation and with his teammates, made a huge impact on the court in tandem with Pledger as the New Zealand centres and to win a Championship, it has been the best decision of his life to play in the NBL. There is still water to go under the bridge yet, but he sees no reason why he wouldn’t come back for the 2015/16 campaign. "I knew a little bit about the league and I knew about New Zealand, I just didn't know exactly where it was at on the globe. I think I made a great decision and I thank Dean for giving me a chance to come out here and showcase my talents, and be part of a good organisation - a Championship organisation," Ibekwe said. "I'm overwhelmed right now. I had fun the whole time I've been here and it's the most fun I've had playing ball. We've been a team from the beginning and there's no better feeling than winning a Championship with the guys you've been battling with all year. "This is a great place to live and this is a good organisation. They treat you like family out here and that's something that I have never really seen before playing abroad. I'm glad I came here and I would definitely like to come back." Meanwhile, Dean Vickerman became an NBL Championship-winning coach for the first time after being there under Andrej Lemanis for the three previous titles. He is just happy for everyone involved with the Breakers organisation and that both the past greats who helped inspire the current team, to the likes of Vukona, Pledger and Abercrombie who have now played in all four Championships, and Webster and Jackson who have taken part in three savoured it "Obviously from the board's standpoint they want to have a team that is in a position to challenge for a Championship. We didn't do that last year but we got back to it this year and I'm really pleased," Vickerman said. "Coming into the Grand Final we put together some clips with the ex-players Kevin Braswell, CJ Bruton, Kirk Penney, CJ Bruton and Gary Wilkinson, and KB talked about how we just cruised through the regular season and now this is winning time, this is the Breakers time. "It's nice that the guys who have been in this group for a long time are just going to be known as winners, and big-time players. It's a nice little tag that they will always carry around with them now."