The Illawarra Hawks signaled their intentions of what their full capabilities are this NBL season by delivering an imposing 92-77 road win over the table-topping Melbourne United at John Cain Arena on Sunday.
With South East Melbourne and Tasmania nipping at their heels, it was a vital win for the Hawks, and it moves them into level pegging with the third-placed Perth Wildcats 14-8. Making the win even more impressive was the absence of iconic coach Brian Goorjian due to COVID protocols.
United have been clinical this season and have enjoyed six straight weeks sitting at the summit of the #NBL22 ladder. But they were comprehensively beaten here, with the Hawks winning every single effort area in the demolition.
Import Antonius Cleveland was everywhere for the Hawks and stuffed the stat sheet with 20 points, seven rebounds, two assists, three steals, and two blocks.
Fellow import Tyler Harvey scored 19 points, while Olympian Duop Reath had 15 points and five boards. Tim Coenraad also turned back the clock with 11 points and seven rebounds.
It was a complete team performance with every single player having an impact, executing the scout to perfection, and not giving United a single opportunity to get back into the game.
Stand-in Hawks coach Jacob Jackomas said the win was engineered entirely by the players who stood up in their coach’s absence.
Jo Lual-Acuil (18 points, nine rebounds) and Chris Goulding (13 points) were the leading scorers for United.
Caleb Agada was outstanding with 12 points, 13 rebounds, and five assists, but alarmingly no other player reached double figures. It was a win that was vital in terms of ladder position and showed the Hawks can be a genuine contender for the championship.
United coach Dean Vickerman was a long-time NBL assistant before taking over to win a championship in New Zealand and then coming to Melbourne and paid credit to Jackomas for getting his opportunity and a big win while obviously disappointed to lose.
Lual-Acuil struck early form with a couple of long-range daggers from three-point land, although he was stopped in the paint by some elite defense from Reath. It was shaping up to be a great battle between the big men, and Reath showed he could get it done from range as well, splashing a triple that helped the Hawks claim the lead.
Coenraad and Harvey joined the three-point party as the Hawks elected to avoid the half-court where United is so strong and instead create looks and chances on the wings.
Once the veteran Coenraad had his second three-pointer, the scoreline was 22-13, and United coach Dean Vickerman pulled his charges in to demand adjustments. Still, the Hawks led 25-19 going into the first break.
United shot out of the blocks to open the third quarter, and Newley continued his rich vein of form to help his side close to within two points. Goulding hit a tough shot from the corner, and it was shaping up to be that kind of match as the quality of both sides began to shine through.
United locked down their defense, a hallmark in recent years, forcing four turnovers in four minutes to frustrate the Hawks. Then Goulding cashed in at the offensive end with a triple and then an athletic dive to keep the ball in play for Lual-Acuil to score.
Yet another Hawks turnover allowed Dellavedova to find space, and he made them pay with a triple that stole the lead back for United. However, Hawks stars Harvey and Coenraad came to the rescue, sparking a nine-point outburst in just 90 seconds to send the Hawks out to an 11-point lead heading into the half-time break.
A disappointed Goulding said they were having their backsides kicked in every effort area during the half-time break, and there would have been some choice words spoken in the sheds during the break as well.
Talking about stopping Harvey and actually doing it are two different things, though, and the Hawks were soon ahead by 15 points and firmly in control of the match. Dellavedova fouling Harvey in the act of shooting a triple didn’t help. Neither did Jack White collecting his fourth personal foul.
The injection of Caleb Agada did help, though, as he quickly rattled up four points and four assists to cut the margin back to 10 points. A late jam for Lual-Acuil gave the home crowd something to cheer about, but United was still trailing by 12 heading into the final quarter.
Any thoughts of a United comeback were quickly dashed as the Hawks’ lead blew out to 20. The game was over with two minutes to play, and United emptied their bench to give their development players some experience in the massive loss.