Crowd support is the Slingers' X-factor

Singapore Slingers guard Ng Hanbin dribbles past his team-mate Xavier Alexander during a training session. The Slingers will be hoping home-court advantage will give them the edge over the Dragons as the Asean Basketball League finals series comes to
Singapore Slingers guard Ng Hanbin dribbles past his team-mate Xavier Alexander during a training session. The Slingers will be hoping home-court advantage will give them the edge over the Dragons as the Asean Basketball League finals series comes to Singapore for Games 3 and 4.ST PHOTO: NEO XIAO BIN

Assistant coach hopes local support will boost his side in Game 3 of the Finals

Just a few months back, the excitement surrounding their first home match of the Asean Basketball League (ABL) season was minimal.

After a season-average crowd of 1,200 showed up for that game against Mono Vampire in November, one would have been hard-pressed to have predicted a sell-out crowd at the OCBC Arena now, as the season comes to an end.

Yet what might have seemed improbable then has happened - all 2,505 tickets for tonight's ABL Finals Game 3 between the Singapore Slingers and Westports Malaysia Dragons have been sold, according to Slingers assistant coach Michael Johnson.

 

Should the Slingers win in front of a capacity crowd tonight, they will have the golden opportunity to go on to win their first ABL title on the same home court in Game 4.

The Republic's only professional basketball team, who finished the regular season as the second seeds, have just come off two matches in Kuala Lumpur, home of the top-seeded Dragons.

The Slingers earned a hard-fought 84-80 win in last Friday's Game 1, before faltering in a 67-83 defeat in Game 2 on Sunday. The first team to win three games will be crowned the ABL champions.

With the stakes higher than ever, Johnson hopes that home support will play a pivotal role tonight, while referring to the national team's victorious bronze-medal match against Thailand in last year's SEA Games.

With eight of the Slingers' local players also in the national team for that match, he said: "It will be fantastic to see that kind of support... we had two players injured, we were tired, but the crowd helped get us over the line. We hope that it will be the same here for Game 3."

With the onus on the Slingers to maximise their home-court advantage, Johnson acknowledges the pressure of their first ABL Finals.

But he points out that his players have already faced high-pressure scenarios. Along with the locals playing at the semi-finals of the past two SEA Games, the team also had to dig deep during their semi-final series against defending champions Hi-Tech Bangkok City.

Having lost their first game at home, Game 2 in Bangkok was a must-win for the Slingers in the best-of-three series. Facing elimination, they won 95-66 with a virtuoso 29-point display by point guard Wong Wei Long.

"We have to show the same steely focus and determination we showed against Hi-Tech, and go after them from the get-go," said Johnson. "As far as pressure goes, it works both ways. If we use it in a positive way, like the Dragons did in Game 2, I think we'll be fine."

In Game 2, the Dragons demonstrated the attacking ruthlessness they showed all season, with point guard Jason Brickman controlling the game's tempo. All their four imports scored in double figures.

But Johnson says the defeat does not have a bearing on today's game, pointing out that the Slingers, like the Dragons, have never lost two games in a row this season.

"We've been good at bouncing back from adversity and losses... at the end of the day, we shouldn't need to motivate these guys at this time of the year," he said.

"We need to play to win instead of (merely) playing not to lose. We're going to take the game to them as they did to us in Game 2. We haven't come this far to lose."

Dragons' coach Ariel Vanguardia is confident that his team's "hunger" will bring an edge to what promises to be an enthralling encounter.

He said: "The Slingers now have the home-court advantage, that's what they stole. We've got to get it back. We need to silence their crowd with our basketball.  We enjoy competing in this environment, this is why we play this game."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 18, 2016, with the headline 'Crowd vital for Slingers'. Print Edition | Subscribe