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R15 Report: Penney, Hawks continue push to post-season

The Illawarra Hawks are within touching distance of completing a remarkable 12-month transformation after Thursday night’s 87-69 humbling of the New Zealand Breakers at WIN Entertainment Centre. Wooden spooners last season for the just the second time in the club’s 37-year existence, the Hawks’ victory over the Breakers was their 13th of the season – more than double last year’s meagre six wins. Illawarra sharpshooter Kirk Penney was typically brilliant (5/10 threes), tormenting his former side with a game-high 28 points American guard Kevin Lisch (16 points, eight rebounds, four steals) left his imprint on the Heritage Round showdown, while Rhys Martin (13 points) was instrumental off the bench. The Breakers made just 36 per cent of their shot attempts and were belted 46-36 under the boards. Corey Webster led New Zealand with 23 points, but most of those came when the contest was well and truly decided. Known primarily for their offensive proficiency, the Hawks – decked out in blue and gold playing strips like they wore in the NBL’s inaugural season in 1979 – built their victory on defence and a strong rebounding effort. Illawarra led by one at quarter time and grabbed the game by the throat by outscoring the visitors 26-9 in the second period. Seemingly assured of a top four finish as they approached the Christmas period, New Zealand have shown signs of vulnerability over the past month, losing three of four games. “We’ve lost three in a row and we need to find a way to get some wins down the stretch,” Breakers coach Dean Vickerman said. Added forward Tom Abercrombie:“Four losses in our last five would suggest we’re not at the level we need to be at.” Third-placed Illawarra’s win was their ninth in 11 games and boosted their record to 13-8, while the Breakers (11-9) have their noses in front of Adelaide (10-9) in the battle for fourth spot. New Zealand were intent on slowing the high-octane Hawks, restricting them to 30 per cent shooting in the first period. But Illawarra made up for poor offensive execution by grabbing 16 rebounds to the Breakers’ 10 and held a 21-20 lead at quarter-time. The Hawks opened with a 9-1 run to start the second period before Tom Abercrombie broke the drought with five quick points. But the home team responded with eight unanswered points, as Lisch finally got one to go down after missing his first six shots. The Breakers were powerless to stop the League’s form side, falling behind 47-29 at half time after being held to nine points in the second quarter. Penney had 14 points and Lisch was up to 11, while Rhys Martin added eight off the bench. It was all over bar the shouting when a Penney three blew the margin out to 29 with 5:35 remaining in the third period. “We’re playing really well and with a lot of confidence, but what I liked about it was that it was a grind, kind of like a playoff game, and we came through it well,’ Hawks coach Rob Beveridge said. “I’ve got an enormous amount of respect for New Zealand and we have to turn around and get ready for them again on Sunday.” The Hawks have had the reigning champions’ measure in three meetings this season and will like their chances of completing a 4-0 sweep when they square off for the final time on Sunday in Auckland.   ILLAWARRA HAWKS 87 (Penney 28, Lisch 16, Martin 13) NEW ZEALAND BREAKERS 69 (Webster 23, Cedric Jackson 14, Abercrombie 7) BOX SCORE  
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