The Auckland Tuatara have completed a remarkable comeback against the Taranaki Airs in the Sal’s NBL semi-finals tonight - their 107-104 overtime win booking them a place in Saturday’s Grand Finals.
After trailing for the majority of the game, the Tuatara were able to equalise just before full time thanks to Rob Loe’s late heroics; his steal and turnaround three setting up an unlikely overtime, which Auckland controlled for the victory.
Loe led all scores with an epic 29 points, 18 rebounds and 5 steals, while Chris Johnson has 21 and 16 and Taki Fahrensohn racked up 22 & 13; Russo-Nance scoring 14 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, along with 5 steals
The Airs had 6 players in double figures; Javonte Douglas with 24 points, 11 rebounds & 7 assists, Anthony Hilliard with 21 & 9. Shaun Willett registered a 15/11/6 line, Marcel Jones had 13 & 10, Tai Wynyard 15 and Richie Rodger 12 (4/4 from outside).
Taranaki began the game aggressively, starting with a thunderous dunk from Willett and with Hilliard and Douglas making multiple drives to the basket – the Airs not afraid to challenge the Tuatara big men. In comparison, Auckland relied primarily on outside shooting from Johnson and Loe early to keep the score close.
A three-point play by Douglas helped build a 15-7 lead for the Airs, before a 9-0 Tuatara run saw Auckland claim their first lead at 16-15 – punctuated by a Russo-Nance steal and setup for the Fahrensohn dunk. After some back-and-forth baskets, Taranaki finsihed with a 27-25 lead at the end of the first.
A game-changing sequence saw Johnson pick up two quick fouls mid-way through the quarter; their primary option forced to head to the bench. The Airs used this opportunity to build their biggest lead of the game - 48-37 with less than 2 minutes left - before Auckland reduce the deficit to 6 heading into the break.
Taranaki continued working their inside/outside game in the third period, with scoring down low courtesy of Wynyard and Jones, while threes from Douglas helped the Airs to maintain a 10-point lead; this forced the Tuatara to play Johnson despite his three fouls. Although the Tuatara made several runs in the period – a wide-open Russo-Nance cutting the deficit to two at one point and Auckland’s defensive pressure forcing Taranaki into multiple turnovers – the Airs continued to maintain their grip on the lead thanks to the shooting of Rodger and Douglas.
The final 22 seconds of this game will no doubt go down in the annals of Tuatara history. After a Russo-Nance triple reduced the deficit to 3 for Auckland, Hilliard made a pair of clutch free throws to build a 5-point lead with 14 seconds left. It was at this point that Loe took over; going on a personal 5-0 run in the final 6 seconds of the game thanks to a layup and the aforementioned steal and triple – tying the game with 3 seconds remaining.
The overtime period belonged to the Tuatara and Russo-Nance in particular, with the 17-year-old scoring 8 points in the period to help give Auckland the win; Loe also hitting a back-breaking triple before fouling out of overtime.
Although the final stats were remarkably similar for both teams with regards to shooting percentages, rebounding and assists, the real story was on the defensive side of the ball – with 14 of the Airs turnovers coming courtesy of steals by the Tuatara, which they directly converted into 25 points. Most tellingly, five of those Auckland steals (3 from Loe and 2 from Russo-Nance) came in the last five minutes of the fourth – a key component to the Tuatara’s come-from-behind win.
The Tuatara now await the winner of tomorrow’s Giants vs Nuggets game to determine their Grand Final opponent.
SCORE: Tuatara 107, Airs 104
Tuatara: Loe 29 PTS & 18 REB & 5 STL | Johnson 21 PTS & 16 REB | Fahrensohn 22 PTS & 13 REB | | Schneider 11 PTS & 11 AST | Russo-Nance 16 PTS & 5 AST & 5 STL
Airs: Douglas 24 PTS & 11 REB & 7 AST | Hilliard 24 PTS & 9 REB | Wynyard 15 PTS & 6 REB | Willett 15 PTS & 11 REB & 6 AST | Jones 13 PTS & 10 REB | Rodger 12 PTS (4/4 3PT)
Full box score HERE.