Melbourne United coach Dean Demopoulos referred to a favourite quote he borrowed from American basketball hall of famer Chuck Daly.
“A great coach once said, this time of the year, you’ve got to land the plane,” Demopoulos said.
“These guys landed the plan, good for them.”
United’s fans had to endure a bumpy landing at the tail end of their side’s cliffhanger 97-96 win over Illawarra Hawks at the State Netball and Hockey Centre on Thursday night, but as Demopoulos quipped, “there were no casualties”.
United is back at the top of the NBL ladder and have opened up a one-game advantage over a flailing Perth Wildcats.
United’s last two results have been full of substance with victories over second and third placed Perth and Illawarra.
The best part for Demopoulos is that his team still has room for improvement.
United’s star shooting guard Chris Goulding conceded there are parts of their game that need addressing and were not masked by the extra notch in the wins column.
“As coach says, there’s definitely some things we need to shore up,” Goulding said.
“To come away with a win, we have to be happy with it, but we can’t just rest and think we’ve won three in a row and we might be up top now.
“We’ve got a lot of things to work on, a lot of things to get better at, but we’ll take the win.”
It was a back and forth encounter where both sides staked a massive claim on the win.
United jumped out of the blocks in the first five minutes only to be reeled in and overtaken by the quarter time break.
The Hawks had it all their own way for the remainder of the half on the back of silky shooting from December player-of-the-month Kevin Lisch, who had 15 of his 21 points by the midway point in the game.
As was the trend, neither side could hold their lead and United fought back with a breathtaking third period, led by sixth man centre Hakim Warrick.
Warrick finished with 20 points and feasted inside the paint when a frustrated Hawks centre AJ Ogilvy was forced to the bench with foul trouble.
Up by 10 at three quarter time, United seemingly had control of the game, but the Hawks came back with veteran Kirk Penney instrumental.
The guard scored 20 points to go with five rebounds and three assists.
The Hawks led by two with 1.16 left on the clock, but United found a way to the victory.
Goulding, who had 27 points, took the game by the scruff of the neck, taking two trips to the free throw line and landing three-of-four to give United the one-point lead.
The Hawks had a chance out of a time out with 4.6 seconds to go only to come up empty. Fittingly, it was Warrick who secured the rebound that sealed the match.
“It would be fantastic to say we should’ve closed out the game out when we were up 10, but the reality is you know the guys that are on that [Illawarra] team and you know who’s coaching that team, so it’s not that easy to do,” Goulding said.
NBL – Round 14
Melbourne United 97 (Goulding 27, Warrick 20, Kickert 17, Holt 14) d Illawarra Hawks 96 (Lisch 21, Penney 20, Ellis 13, Forman 13) at the State Netball and Hockey Centre.
Star Weekly’s best …
Hakim Warrick (United): United’s big name import is only getting better and you have the feeling is could be ready to set the NBL playoffs alight. Could a starting spot be on the agenda in the near future?
Chris Goulding (United): Aggressive to the basket all night, came up big down the stretch. Enjoyed being the man at crunch time.
Kevin Lisch (Hawks): Busy hands on the defensive end led to easy baskets for his team at the other end. They re-paid him by finding him in good positions, so he could utilise his silky shot to finish with 21 points.
Next up …
Melbourne United will play two games in three days next week, both against the Cairns Taipans. The first will be at the Cairns Convention Centre on Wednesday, followed by a return to the State Netball and Hockey Centre on Friday.