A blistering second-half from American import James Ennis made the difference as the Perth Wildcats drew first blood in their best-of-three NBL semifinal series against Wollongong at Perth Arena on Friday night.
It was play-offs basketball at its best in the second half as key players on both sides traded blows before the Wildcats prevailed 91-79 in front of 10,907 raucous fans.
The top-seeded home side broke the game open in the third period and pulled 16 points clear before the plucky Hawks clawed their way back in the most hostile environment in the league.
NBA-bound forward Ennis was on fire for the Wildcats, while fellow American Rotnei Clarke and sharp-shooter Oscar Forman kept Wollongong in the contest.
Ennis drove through traffic to throw down a trademark slam-dunk in the third quarter that sent the majority of the crowd into a frenzy before Clarke and Forman did their best to silence them.
Tensions threatened to boil over when Tyson Demos was called for an unsportsmanlike foul on Ennis in the final period and the game went down to the wire.
Ennis had just three points to his name at half-time, but exploded after the break to finish with a game-high 25 in a match-winning performance.
“Coach (Trevor Gleeson) talked to me when I came out in the second half and my whole mindset was just to flush it like he said and get back to how I play,” Ennis said.
“The atmosphere was crazy. I loved it. It was exciting.
“I think I was too amped up at the beginning and got an early foul and that turned me down just a little bit.
“But when I get a dunk, it just gets me going. The crowd’s going and it gets me pumped up.”
The Wildcats were seriously challenged, but held their nerve in the dying stages against a team that only just scraped into the play-offs with a 13-15 record.
Perth are now just one win away from a fourth grand final in five years.
The teams will meet again in Wollongong on Sunday, with game three to be played in Perth on Tuesday if a decider is required.
Tom Jervis (14) and Jesse Wagstaff (11) played key roles off the bench for the Wildcats, with Shawn Redhage’s 12-point contribution also important.
Clarke (23 points) and Forman (18) were Wollongong’s main contributors.
Hawks coach Gordie McLeod was proud of his team’s performance, but said they would have to make some improvements before game two.
“I thought we fought hard and hung in there,” McLeod said.
“It was disappointing but we came back to get within three and cast some doubt there.
“We should take some confidence out of that.”
In the other semifinal series, Adelaide hold a 1-0 lead over Melbourne after winning 101-85 at home on Thursday.
The teams meet in Melbourne on Sunday for game two.