Cougars prevail over Wolves as top spot battle delivers
TOP spot was on the line, Wally Hagan Stadium was loud and packed, both teams had milestones to celebrate and Cockburn and Joondalup didn’t disappoint delivering perhaps the game of the Men's SBL season on Friday with the Cougars downing the Wolves for the minor premiership.
The Lapa Brazilian BBQ Restaurant Cockburn Cougars ended up beating the Merriwa Tavern & Bistro Joondalup City Wolves 123-120 at Wally Hagan Stadium with the Cougars finishing the regular season on top with a 22-4 record with the defending champion Wolfpack second at 21-5.
The Cougars are locked in to take on the eighth placed Perry Lakes Hawks in the quarter finals while the Wolves will likely take on the Perth Redbacks, but that could still change depending on what happens across the league on Saturday night.
Friday night's clash always loomed as being a cracking contest and it lived up to the billing right from the outset.
It was the visiting Wolfpack who got off to a fast start scoring the opening five points and then leading 12-5 early on.
But with Gavin Field catching fire in the first half, the Cougars got right back in the contest even after point guard Daniel Thomas went down with a hamstring injury and big man Marcus Goode was hampered by foul trouble.
The Wolves had the answers in the first quarter and were looking strong with Trian Iliadis and Seb Salinas hitting some big shots, and Kevin Davis working hard inside enjoying some freedom without Goode on the floor for the Cougars.
But Cockburn got going in the second quarter with 36 points to 23 and threatened to blow the game wide open, but Joondalup hit some important shots just before half-time to only trail by 10 points at the break.
The Cougars were on top for the majority of the second half but the Wolves kept themselves close enough led by the hustle of Davis, Rob Huntington and Greg Hire, and desperation of Joel Questel, Salinas and Iliadis.
Cockburn looked to have the game won on several occasions but Joondalup just wouldn’t go away. A big three late for Iliadis off a steal with four seconds left got the Wolfpack back within one.
The Wolves attempted to foul but the Cougars got the ball through the press to guard Travis Hayto who had a clear path for a layup to secure the three-point win and top spot for the Cougars in style.
The game was physical, intense and tempers flared at times while it had plenty of drama with foul trouble, injuries and calls that at times left both teams frustrated.
There were big plays at either end galore as well and it was befitting of a top of the table clash played in front of a raucous Wally Hagan Stadium crowd just to top it off.
In the end, the Cougars won by three points to celebrate the 200th SBL game of 2012 championship winning vice-captain Sheldon McIntyre. It was his first game back from injury and he had four points, six assists, three steals and two rebounds in 32 minutes.
Field was outstanding for the Cougars finishing with 33 points and 11 rebounds on shooting 10-of-19 from the field, 5-of-10 from deep and 8-of-9 from the foul line.
Najee Lane added 27 points, six rebounds and six assists for Cockburn and Rhett Della was tremendous with 24 points, three steals, two boards and two assists. Goode also had 23 points in under 19 minutes due to foul trouble.
Cougars coach Matt Parsons always knew it was going to be quite the battle against the defending champions with top spot up for grabs and he was happy with the fight shown by his group to hold on in a frantic finish.
"I really thought it was just two juggernaut teams going at it and we prepared for that. I think that's the beauty of the two clubs, there's a lot of depth there and that's probably their training level and it's our training level," Parsons said.
"So when those two teams come together it's just 12 guys going at it and it's physical. It really is a physical contest. It was a lot of fun to watch. You know what, Joondalup are tough. They are the reigning champs, they've been on top of the ladder for the majority of the year and they were always going to come.
"We had to be smarter about how we executed as well because we got a bit of a rush at times and tried to force the issue, and that's not really our game. You have to take advantage of the things going your way and the beautiful thing in that third quarter was the foul count was in our favour.
"That was through our aggressive nature so we continued that and it worked in our favour, but they came back and threw the kitchen sink at us as good teams do and made a contest of it."
When Parsons arrived at the Cougars to start 2015 little was expected of them with the majority of the 2012 championship team having moved on.
But they had a terrific season ending up in fourth place and now have gone another level in 2016 to take the minor premiership and it's the character and commitment of the group that Parsons believes is key.
"Personally I came to this club last year and we were predicted to come last so the achievement the guys have made and the advancement in their skill set and team work is phenomenal," Parsons said.
"At the end of the day you can't play poor all the time because we are rich in commitment to each other and team work, and that is the most valuable part. Tonight was an amazing show of what we are like with a huge crowd, we were able to honour a fantastic servant of our club for his 200th game and that's the pride we have.
"The best thing for me is to watch these guys mature and develop, and being able to contest in the best teams in the league and win a game of basketball which results in a minor premiership so it's fantastic. I don’t know if there's a trophy or anything but it's definitely a nice accolade to have. It does put a target on you a little bit and I think we are prepared for that."
The Wolves also celebrated a milestone with Sean Easther playing his 150th SBL game and he scored five points made up of a three and two free-throws in three minutes of court time.
Iliadis top-scored for the Wolfpack with 28 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and three steals while Salinas added 23 points, Davis 22 points and 11 boards, Hire 19 points, six rebounds and three assists, and Rob Huntington five points, 10 boards and four assists.
Dual championship winning coach Ben Ettridge is happy with the fight shown by his group to never give up and now with the preparation they've had leading into another playoff campaign.
"Marcus Goode is a load down low, Gavin Field is as good as anyone going around and you've got to be ready, but if anything it got us ready for that playoff intensity. To have this after Redbacks last week they are two good hit outs before the finals and that's kind of what you want," Ettridge said.
"Something we have focused on all season is that we just never give up no matter the scoreline. To give ourselves a chance in the last four and-a-half seconds is a total testament to the boys and how they play.
"That's a testament to guys like Damian Matacz, Robbie Huntington and even big Kev. They are working their butts off down low doing all the dirty work and then Joel Questel comes in with two deflections and a steal, and the next thing you know we are rolling."
Ettridge couldn’t be more proud of his group and is confident the loss to the Cougars to end the season after seven straight wins could be just the incentive to kick the Wolves up another level.
"First and foremost, I'm really proud of the season the guys have had. Finishing one or two doesn’t really matter to us, we've set ourselves a pretty big target and when you turn the corner on January 1 as the defending champion the hardest thing to do is repeat," Ettridge said.
"You look at the number of times in this league or in any league where teams have repeated as champions and it's the hardest thing to do, but for these guys to put themselves in that position is pretty massive.
"What we've seen this year is that it doesn’t matter whether it was Kalamunda, Lakeside, Cockburn or Redbacks, everyone comes out giving us their best game and if we're not on point we're not going to get it done. That's a wakeup call for us and seven-game win streaks win nothing when the last one was a loss."
Article by Chris Pike
Photo by Mick Cronin