The Singapore Slingers overcame a sluggish start to edge out defending champions Hi-Tech Bangkok City 83-80 and take a crucial step towards a historic first Asean Basketball League (ABL) title yesterday.
The win extends their unbeaten streak to eight, and also makes them sole table-toppers with a win-loss ratio of 11-2 with seven games left. Second-placed Hi-Tech are on 10-3.
But it was no stroll in the park for the Slingers with Hi-Tech's foreign imports Tyler Lamb and Fred Goldstein's control and skill helping the visitors carve out a 17-14 lead at the end of the first quarter and a 37-35 lead at half-time. The hosts even trailed 41-50 at one point in the third quarter.
However, strong performances from previous Player of the Week Wu Qingde (19 points) and Filipino import Kris Rosales (17) kept them in the game at the OCBC Arena.
Veteran Wong Wei Long, returning from a two-game suspension, led the way in the final quarter, scoring nine points (including two three-pointers) to give the Slingers the lead at 81-73 with a little over a minute to go.
However, the final minute saw Hi-Tech close the gap to 80-83 following mistakes from the Slingers. That included Wu fouling out.
Hi-Tech import Steven Thomas then missed two crucial free throws before the final buzzer sounded, to the joy of the 1,200-strong crowd.
Wu again led the Slingers with 19 points (he was also their top scorer in their previous game against the Pilipinas MX3 Kings with 21), with imports Xavier Alexander and Rosales chipping in with 17 and 16 points respectively. Lamb was the game's top scorer with 30 points.
The Slingers' head coach Neo Beng Siang was delighted with the win but not entirely satisfied with the team's performance.
He said: "At the start we were sloppy at both ends, and played into their (Hi-Tech)'s hands. But we adjusted and pushed hard in the fourth quarter...the imports did a good job, they defended more aggressively."
He also praised Wu for his consistent shooting accuracy and Wong for not showing any sign of rustiness. Of Wong, who started on the bench, Neo added: "He adds additional points from the outside, and can do a good job on defence. He gives us another good option."
Wong, 27, was suspended after he was caught flailing his arm at Westports Malaysia Dragons' Wong Yi Hou after their December game.
He said: "I definitely have to be more disciplined and control myself better in the future. I can't vent my anger like that."
Hi-Tech's assistant coach Raha Mortel complimented the contribution of the Slingers' local players: "We can contain their imports, but they have very well-rounded bench players like Desmond (Oh), Wong, Wu and Delvin (Goh)."
He hopes to gain revenge on the Slingers by winning their final match-up next month, saying: "It's too early to say whether it's their (Slingers) title to lose. For us it's another challenge, like turning the page and looking on to the next chapter."