By Russell Bennett
If Saturday night’s game at ‘The Colosseum’ was a boxing bout, the Pakenham Warriors were in desperate trouble in the sixth round – on the ropes with broken ribs and a badly swollen right eye.
But what happened next was befitting of a ‘Rocky’ screenplay.
Brent Russell’s Big V Warriors refused to give in – refused to succumb to that one, knockout blow from Craigieburn.
Instead, they bounced back off the ropes – spurred on by the deafening roar of the 500-strong home crowd to land a huge counter left hook, a crunching right uppercut, and a knockout roundhouse of their own to win in the 12th.
Brad Szalek’s dagger corner three was the left hook; Trent Lee’s long-range bomb from feet beyond the arc as the shot clock expired was the uppercut; and Josh Bjelan’s layup in the closing seconds was the roundhouse as Pakenham turned an 18-point deficit at one stage into an eight-point win to go up 1-0 in their best of three semi-final series against the Eagles.
Staggeringly, Craigieburn failed to score a single point in the final 5:50 of game time, while in that same period Pakenham transformed a 13-point deficit into an eight-point win, 73-65.
While games two and (if necessary) three will be held on Craigieburn’s home floor next weekend, Saturday’s result would surely be a massive psychological blow to the Eagles, who finished atop the Division 2 ladder with a 17-5 record from their 22 home and away games. The Warriors, by contrast, finished fifth.
The Eagles were posing all kinds of issues early for the Warriors on Saturday night, particularly athletic finisher Dexter Graham (20 points and 7 boards) and captain Liam Watt (17 points).
The visitors jumped out to an 11-2 early lead, setting the tone and playing the game largely on their own terms.
Pakenham’s interior defense started to clamp down and proved key in the Warriors reducing the deficit to just two, but they were still being out-hustled in some key areas – such as the offensive glass.
A series of high-percentage looks throughout the second term helped the Eagles extend their lead, while the Warriors struggled to finish at the other end.
Though Bjelan continued his outstanding form, displaying his impressive array of offensive post moves, the home side couldn’t buy a bucket from the outside in the early going.
Bjelan had 16 of Pakenham’s 26 points at the half as they trailed by 10. Super versatile forward James Topp urged his side to push the tempo more in the second half in the hope of finding easier looks at the basket, while Russell blasted his players for playing like they had the lead and simply relying on their talent to see them over the line.
“This is game one, but we have to treat it like it’s game three!” he implored.
Though Bjelan continued his dominance in the low-block to start the third, the Eagles got their perimeter game firing and led by 16 points, 47-31, just three minutes into the second half.
Pakenham’s only chance to get back into the game was on the defensive end, and twin towers Bjelan and Brad Bridgewater loomed as the keys.
The Warriors then made it a clear focus to try and finish at the rim or at least be rewarded with trips to the charity stripe, and their intensity lifted.
It started at the defensive end with the huge, vocal home crowd riding every play. Turnovers and costly fouls from the Eagles meant that they couldn’t land that decisive knockout blow.
The Warriors got within six points late in the term as Bridgewater (10 points, 7 boards) started to come into his own, but the Eagles responded and stretched the margin back to 12 with 10 minutes to play.
There was a clear lift in intensity from the Warriors in the first five minutes of the last, yet they struggled to make any real inroads on the scoreboard in those opening stages.
But a three-pointer from Eagle Robert Toller-Bond with 5:50 remaining proved to be their last bucket of the contest as the Warriors’ desperation sparked them to life.
Strong finishes at the rim from Topp (11 points) and skipper Ben Gaze (10 points) were followed by a high-percentage look from Bjelan (25 points, 7 boards) with the defense giving him too much space; and Szalek’s corner three – which gave Pakenham the lead 66-65 with just under 1:50 left.
Trent Lee’s three from more than a foot behind the arc with just over a minute remaining put Pakenham up 69-65, before another Bjelan layup put the side up 71-65 with just over 20 seconds remaining.
The Warriors’ defensive spark was vital in their win, but so to was their lift in tempo offensively. The Eagles simply couldn’t match it.
The lasting image from the game, which ended with Pakenham outscoring Craigieburn 25-5 in the final quarter, was from the Warriors team song – sung at centre court arm-in-arm with their army of loyal supporters. If the Warriors are to close out this series next weekend at Craigieburn, they’ll need to bring that same passion and fire with them to spur their boys on again.
“Way to go 1-0 but our job isn’t done,” Russell said in the change rooms after the song.
“We have to go there now and play on their court.
“Defense is what got it done tonight, and that’s the finals intensity we need moving forward.
“Now, we must go 1-0 one more time.”
Click below for a video of the Warriors belting out a spine-tingling rendition of their team song, arm-in-arm with their supporters…