By Russell Bennett
With less than a second left and the Pakenham Big V men’s basketballers trailing by two points on hostile enemy soil at the Toyota Hothouse in Mildura, it took something truly special on Saturday night for the Warriors to advance from their knockout elimination final.
Up stepped Gaze – Ben Gaze.
With less than half a second left on the clock – 0.4 seconds to be exact – the Warriors captain drained the most clutch of three-pointers to stun the Mildura Heat in an absolutely jaw-dropping finish, 67-66.
“Mildura at Mildura is a mission that teams often can’t come out victorious on, and going into the game we knew it was going to be tough,” said Warriors head coach Brent Russell.
“Mildura is a side that’s always backed to win at home and, sure enough, the league tipped them to win.”
But this was the little Warriors squad that could. Of the traveling party of 27, 14 were players and coaching staff.
But while they were outnumbered, they’d never be beaten for heart or sheer passion.
“The atmosphere was huge and we knew we had to stick together throughout the entire contest,” Russell said.
“Our game plan was simple – execute on both ends of the floor, and come out hot early to take the crowd out of it.”
But the Heat got the upper hand early and had the parochial home crowd behind them.
“Going into half-time down seven points we knew we just had to play 20 more minutes of Pakenham Warrior basketball,” Russell said.
“We’d been in this situation before so it was up to us to fight to the end and keep our season alive.”
The third term belonged to Pakenham, with Gaze coming out on fire against the heat with six straight points – forcing Mildura into a pair of timeouts.
“We’d established a lead purely from team defensive efforts – holding them to nine points for that quarter – but we knew the game wasn’t over and that Mildura would come back with the support of the town in the stadium behind them,” Russell said.
“The best part about this squad is that they stick together and believe in each other.
“We had all guys contributing on both ends of the floor but nothing can go past ‘that shot’ from Gazey to hit that game-winner.
“It just made that drive a happy one on the way home!”
Gaze led the way for Pakenham with 24 points and, almost fittingly, the only one of the eight three point attempts he made was the one that counted most. Big man Josh Bjelan finished with a big double-double – 13 points and 15 boards – while James Topp (15 points) and Nick Ross (11 points) were the other double-figure scorers.
“These guys have fight, know what they want and believe in each other,” Russell said proudly.
“We advance now to the next step – against Craigieburn in a best of three series so all our focus is on them now.
“As much as we would love to keep playing back that shot, we move on to our next assignment and, hopefully, we can advance further to somewhere the club has never been before.”
Russell also praised the army of Warriors supporters on the weekend, adding: “A massive shout out to the support we got at Mildura and over social media. Warriors fans, you guys are amazing!”
Game one of the Warriors’ best-of-three semi-final series against the Craigieburn Eagles tips off at 7pm this Saturday at The Colosseum at Cardinia Life.