The red-hot Illawarra Hawks look to have remedied their fourth-quarter shortcomings in continuing a mid-season rise up the NBL ladder, defeating the Cairns Taipans 97-82 on Wednesday.
There were questions of whether Illawarra had the poise to close out games in the fourth quarter after shattering losses at the hands of Perth, but have since responded thanks in large part to the return of point guard Rhys Martin.
Once again it was the Hawks’ Big 3 of AJ Ogilvy, Kirk Penney and Kevin Lisch starring in the win, while receiving huge contributions from the bench.
Classy sharpshooter Penney poured in a game-high 24 points as the Hawks secured their fourth straight win to gap Adelaide in the playoff frame.
American guard Lisch shrugged off a neck injury to finish with 16 points and Ogilvy was his usual damaging self with 19 points and nine rebounds.
Guard Markel Starks led Cairns with 19 points, Stephen Weigh had 17 and Cameron Gliddon added 13.
Illawarra (now 8-6) led at every change and showed no signs of slowing down when the Taipans (5-9) cut the margin to two points in the third quarter.
“We’ve learnt from the Perth losses a while back and we’re closing out games strongly now,” Hawks coach Rob Beveridge said.
“That’s last year’s grand finalists and we have enormous respect for them.
“I’m so impressed with our work ethic. They’re playing hard and it’s a tremendous group to coach. They all accept their roles.
The lead changed hands four times in the opening minutes before the Hawks put their foot down, pulling ahead 27-18 at quarter-time.
Sparked by Stephen Weigh’s hot streak, the Taipans fought back in the second period, cutting the deficit to six.
The irrepressible Penney answered the challenge with a few timely buckets and the margin was soon back up to 11.
Lisch sent a scare through the Hawks camp, jarring his neck after a heavy fall late in the half and heading straight to the bench.
Showing typical toughness, the 28-year-old started the third period and played a crucial role in his side’s victory.
Cairns were within five before veteran centre Larry Davidson’s tip-in on the buzzer put the home team up 50-43 at half time.
Both teams were in sync offensively by half time - Illawarra having a single turnover and the Taipans with three.
Cairns kept chipping away, pulling to within two on Gliddon’s dead-eye three-point shooting.
But the Hawks raised the bar again, closing with a 16-6 run to take a 74-62 lead into the final quarter and were never seriously threatened.
Taipans centre Matt Burston (migraine) was a late withdrawal, while Davidson chalked up his 300th NBL game.
“They’re extremely potent offensively we just can’t guard anybody,” Cairns coach Aaron Fearne said.
“Every week we show up and try different things and we get the same result.
“Offensively we wanted to keep them close to 80 and they almost got 100.”
Illawarra goes into their final clash with Cairns on Friday leading the series 2-1 with a +18 points differential.
ILLAWARRA HAWKS 97
(Penney 24, Ogilvy 19, Coenraad 17)
CAIRNS TAIPANS 82
(Starks 19, Weigh 17, Gliddon 13)