Kendall Stephens’ breakout party helped South East Melbourne Phoenix open up a handy first half lead and then he hit the two daggers to shake off a determined Illawarra Hawks for a critical 90-82 win on Sunday.
The Phoenix had no choice but to win the game to close Round 15 at WIN Entertainment Centre against the bottom placed Hawks but they did have their work cut out when down nine early in the second quarter.
It was Stephens who sparked a remarkable run of 17 straight points as he nailed four three-pointers. South East Melbourne turned that into an 18-point lead late in the third term, but still Illawarra wouldn’t go away.
With Daniel Grida and Sam Froling starring, the Hawks closed to within two late in the piece but then John Roberson nailed his only three of the game. Then Stephens came back to nail two more triples to seal the win for the Phoenix that improves them to 9-11 on the season to keep them in the finals hunt.
It was a stunning career-best display from Stephens as he finished with 20 points on 6/11 shooting from three-point range to go with six rebounds and two steals.
Making it more remarkable is the fact that he didn’t hit the court at all last Sunday in a loss to New Zealand, went scoreless in the two games before that and had scored a total of 16 points in the eight matches before that after starting off averaging 8.4 points in the first eight games.
Phoenix coach Simon Mitchell challenged Stephens to deliver and it’s fair to say he responded.
“Kendall Stephens is a young man who has been suffering an ankle injury for around a month now. I know last time we played Illawarra they picked on him with the four possessions he was out there,” Mitchell said.
“He was ineffective and minus eight in a minute and-a-half and it hurt us. The acid was put on him this week knowing he was healthy now and had no excuses. He had to go out there to get a job done and I thought he was excellent.”
The other standout performer for South East Melbourne was centre Dane Pineau. In the continued absence of an import replacement for Keith Benson, he was outstanding with 14 points, 18 rebounds and three blocks.
Ben Madgen added 17 points on 3/6 from deep to go with five assists while Roberson contributed 12 points and seven assists, Kyle Adnam nine points and five assists, and Mitch Creek eight points and four rebounds.
The Hawks again backed in their young locals with imports Josh Boone and Darington Hobson combining for just 10 points on 4/14 shooting.
While captain Todd Blanchfield still top-scored with 15 points, it was Sunday Dech (13 points, five rebounds), Daniel Grida (13 points) and Sam Froling (13 points, 11 rebounds) who provided for the excitement moving forward for Illawarra.
Hawks coach Matt Flinn was frustrated with the lapses from his team in the second and third quarters, but ultimately will take plenty from the game given the exciting signs from the youth.
“Coaching this team is just such a rollercoaster. We were stringing stops together early in the game and were laying the foundation there to build a good performance on,” Flinn said.
“Then we just had that patch in the second and third quarters where we leaked a lot of points. We were a little bit clunky with our offence and then ultimately scoreboard pressure got us at the end, but the flipside is that I’m really happy and proud of the way that in particular the young guys when they came on performed.
“They have a very high ceiling and to accelerate their development and give them some real opportunity against a very good basketball team made me happy with their performance.”
With Mitch Creek hitting two threes in the first quarter and Dane Pineau dominant on the boards and with three buckets it wasn’t the worst start for the Phoenix.
But the Hawks warmed to the task and ended the term on a 12-3 run including an and-one from Angus Glover and triple from Daniel Grida to see them lead 26-18.
The Hawks still led by nine when Sunday Dech drained a three, but then the Phoenix turned the game with a stunning run and it was sparked by unlikeliest of sources, Stephens.
He hit four three-pointers in the space of five minutes to end up with 14 points for the half as he helped South East Melbourne go on a 17-0 as they turned a nine-point deficit into an eight-point lead going into the half.
When the Phoenix went on a 9-0 streak midway through the third period too, the lead was out to 17 and that stretch included Tai Wesley’s first field goal after going 0-6 and yet another three from Ben Madgen.
A Kyle Adnam three-point play stretched the lead to 18 but the Hawks wouldn’t go away and finished the third period on an 11-2 run with Grida scoring seven of those.
Illawarra was far from done. They opened the fourth period scoring 12 of the first 14 points and it was young guns Sam Froling and Grida at the forefront. A good bucket inside from Froling and then a free-throw had the margin two with four minutes to go and it was panic time for South East Melbourne.
The Phoenix came up big, though, and it started with John Roberson hitting his only three of the game after missing his first four attempts. Stephens then stepped back up after his four threes in the second quarter to hit another two from downtown to seal the season-saving win for his team.
The Hawks now attempt to snap a four-game losing streak on the road to the Brisbane Bullets next Saturday. The Phoenix remain on the road and look to earn revenge on the Wildcats for a 31-point defeat in their first ever road game.
NBL ROUND 15
ILLAWARRA HAWKS 82 (Blanchfield 15, Grida 13, Dech 13, Froling 13)
SOUTH EAST MELBOURNE PHOENIX 90 (Stephens 20, Madgen 17, Pineau 14)