Written by Steve Smith (SEABL Freelance Reporter)
A THREE-year reign of unprecedented success for the Mount Gambier Pioneers has been capped with a second straight SEABL title after a hard-fought 87-76 triumph over the Albury-Wodonga Bandits.
The Pioneers’ nine-point win at the Dandenong Basketball Stadium on Saturday night, was, as has been the case all year, built on the back of a commanding team effort against a Bandits outfit that gave them everything they could handle for roughly 35 of the full 40 minutes.
US import Damian Johnson was a deserved Hugh McMenamin Medal winner, compiling a dominant stat line of 21 points (13 in the final quarter alone), 17 rebounds, three assists and three blocked shots.
He had no shortage of offensive assistance, with Erik Burdon splashing five triples on his way to a team-high 22 points, while backcourt partner Tom Daly added 19 points.
Brad Hill and Tyrone Lee both battled foul trouble all night but still managed 10 points apiece.
For the Bandits, Donte Nicholas was sublime, top-scoring with 24 points, 16 rebounds and four steals, while fellow import Cory Dixon and livewire guard Deba George both chipped in with 17 points.
Coach Richard Hill could not have been more emphatic in his delight at Mount Gambier’s victory, admitting the Bandits took the Pioneers well out of their comfort zone.
“We didn’t play well and the credit for that goes to Albury,” Hill said.
“They had a plan and they did a good job of taking us away from what we wanted to do.
“But like all year, we’ve won a lot of games with grit and determination.
“Our record is unbelievable and it doesn’t really reflect a gap in talent, it really shows the way our guys play.
“I know how much this means to the guys, I think there’s been five guys here for all three years.
“We’ve got a system, we haven’t really changed too much and we try to recruit defensive players.
“There’s plenty of players who can score the ball and we don’t really need that.
“We kept them to 76 points tonight and we were probably disappointed with that, it was only in the second half we were able to pick it up.”
A bitterly disappointed coach Brad Chalmers couldn’t hide his frustration at the Bandits’ profligacy from the field, the Border club misfiring on 51 of its 80 field goal attempts, including a woeful 4/22 from beyond the three-point arc.
“We didn’t play well enough,” Chalmers said.
“We had our moments but execution was sloppy.
“It could have gone either way, with a couple of minutes to go it was only nine points but a couple of poor decisions cost us.
“Our shot selection was horrible, let’s not sugarcoat it, we didn’t play well enough in the big moments.
“But I’m proud of the guys, they battled back from 12 down but at the end of the day, it’s just frustrating we didn’t play our best basketball on the big stage.
“At the end of the day it’s disappointing but sometimes, that’s just how it goes.”
Dixon got the Bandits scoring underway before both teams settled relatively quickly, the Pioneers using a late surge to stake a handy 24-17 lead after the opening quarter.
Both teams continued to battle hard as Johnson’s length started to trouble the Bandits interior scoring, while Mt Gambier’s wealth of offensive options kept the Border club at arm’s length.
Imperceptibly at first, Albury-Wodonga worked its way back from an eight-point deficit as the Pioneers took a slender 44-41 advantage to the locker-room at half-time.
Three big triples to Burdon in the opening five minutes of the third pushed the Pioneers lead back out to 12 points as the Bandits continued to struggle from the field.
Tempers on both sides frayed as both the Bandits and the intensity surged, the Border club closing to 57-53 with under two minutes remaining in the quarter.
A pivotal fourth foul on Hill saw the swingman head to the bench as the Bandits somehow reclaimed the lead for the first time since the opening minutes, much to the delight of the raucous contingent of Albury-Wodonga fans.
But the momentum swung back late to the Pioneers as Daly landed a desperation heave from half-court on the three-quarter-time buzzer to give Mount Gambier a priceless 66-61 advantage.
Albury-Wodonga pushed again to start the fourth period, tying the scores after three minutes of play, although Dixon’s fourth and then, disastrously, his fifth foul, allowed the Pioneers to re-establish a nine-point buffer with four minutes left.
Despite George’s third triple, the margin was one bridge too far for Albury-Wodonga as Mount Gambier ran out the clock on a richly-deserved victory, Johnson nailing a late three to spark scenes of wild jubilation from the Pioneers’ supporters.