The Perth Wildcats' title defence is on life support after a seven-point loss to the Cairns Taipans in game one of their semifinals series in Cairns tonight.
The match ended in ugly scenes at the Cairns Convention Centre after a clash between Wildcats back-up guard Drake U'u and Taipans import Torrey Craig, who was the subject of a hard foul late in the match. The referees ejected U'u from the court and the crowd vented its anger.
Perth were on the ropes early and trailed by as much as 13 points before a ferocious third quarter kept the home team to just two points while the Wildcats scored 18 to take the lead at the final break.
However, led by US import Scottie Wilbekin, the Taipans slowly gained ground through the fourth quarter.
A massive three from big man Alex Loughton with less than 90 seconds left put the home side six points up, sealing the 71-64 win in front of the vocal home crowd.
The result means the Wildcats must win Sunday's game at Perth Arena to force the series to game three in Cairns on Tuesday.
And they will have to do it without vice-captain Greg Hire, who missed the second half with a leg injury, compounding the club's injury problems after veteran Shawn Redhage's season-ending foot injury this week.
"We'll wait for the medical report on that, but I would say Greg would be very doubtful for Sunday," Wildcats coach Trevor Gleeson said.
The availability of U'u will also be in question after his foul on Craig.
The incident didn't look as bad on replay but prompted a venomous response from the crowd and left the Taipans seething, with coach Aaron Fearne demanding the NBL look at what he called a dangerous and embarrassing play.
Gleeson was quick to defend U'u and questioned why the officials were so quick to eject him, though he admitted he wouldn't be seeking formal clarification.
"He's played at the ball. He didn't try to take his head off, he didn't try to smash him. He played at the ball," Gleeson said.
Wilbekin was phenomenal in his side's win, hitting some clutch shots to finish with 23 points and 10 rebounds, drawing a loud "MVP" chant from the home crowd along the way.
His opposite number Damian Martin was one of the Wildcats' best with seven points, six steals and eight rebounds. Jermaine Beal top-scored for the visitors with 20 points.
Martin said after a season which had seen them suffer through form slumps and injuries, it would take more than a close loss on the road to make the Wildcats lose faith.
"This is my eighth season in the NBL and by far it's had more adversity than any other year," he said.
"Injuries, illnesses, we've had a whole bunch of excuses to say why we're losing but the reality is I still back the seven guys we might have healthy on Sunday.
"We'll go in full of confidence and hopefully we can send it to a game three.
"Obviously losing Shawn hurt but we had 24 hours to get our heads around that and we'll have to do the same thing with Greg now."