SINGAPORE - Despite concerns over the coronavirus situation, it was fever pitch at the OCBC Arena on Sunday (Feb 9), as the 1,800 fans who turned out for the Singapore Slingers match against Fubon Braves were treated to a drama-laden 106-99 overtime victory.
The see-saw battle between both teams had things coming to a boil with 1min 37sec left in overtime after Slingers centre Anthony McClain fouled Tseng Wen-ting, only for the Braves' Charles Garcia to step up and make two from the charity stripe to make it 100-all.
Slingers coach Neo Beng Siang was livid at the touchlines, but with the umpires missing his protests, he had to call a timeout to persuade them to review the incident via video replay.
Chief umpire Chan Owe Siang then ruled that the wrong player had taken the free throws and took two points off the Braves while turning the ball over to the Slingers.
It was then the visitors who turned apoplectic, with their former National Basketball Association forward OJ Mayo appearing to signal for a walk-off, although it was unheeded.
Garcia had to be substituted later after he went behind the post to argue with Slingers owner Wee Siew Kim and his wife.
"This was one of the most exciting games I have watched live," said 23-year-old undergraduate Jeslyn Liew, who was at the match with two friends.
"I trust the organisers' decision to open the gates to fans, and that the precautionary measures (temperature screenings) are sufficient, although I'm surprised so many fans came. The atmosphere was great."
The Taiwanese side never recovered from the setback as they missed all their field-goal attempts after that and made just one free throw to slip to third (9-6) in the 10-team ABL, while the Slingers climbed to fifth (6-6).
An exasperated Braves coach Hsu Chin-che said: "How can they allow us to score two free throws and take them away from us? Of course, our players were affected by this call and it was a very big turning point in the game.
"The Slingers were very good and scored more than 100 points against us, but the game shouldn't be decided like this."
Neo accepted it was a 50-50 game against strong title contenders, and the Slingers were fortunate the officials' final decision was in their favour. He said: "They could have not reviewed the incident, they could have overruled us, so we were lucky in that sense.
"But our players stepped up when it mattered... Leon (Kwek) showed how hungry he was. Besides the scoring, the team showed great hustle to fight for every ball."
Kwek exploded with 12 points in the first quarter and finished with a game-high and career-best 26 points, along with three rebounds and three steals as the local roster stepped up big time to complement their imports led by Xavier Alexander's triple-double of 24 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists.
The Slingers led 35-23 at the start of the second quarter, but their Taiwanese opponents then went on a 19-2 run to take the lead at half-time. It was neck-and-neck afterwards, although the Braves looked to have the advantage as Slingers forward Delvin Goh (10 points, 6 rebounds) fouled out with more than six minutes to go.
However, backed by a vociferous home crowd, the Slingers kept pace and were unlucky to be taken to an extra five minutes after Maxie Esho matched Kwek's triple in the final minute to make it 93-93.
From the bench, forward Kelvin Lim defended Mayo and Garcia with gusto and chipped in with six points, while guard Lim Jun Yuan also contributed three points as the Slingers prevailed.
Kwek, a 23-year-old forward who made seven out of nine shots beyond the arc against the Braves, said: "I struggled from the three-point line at the start of the season, and Coach (Neo) showed me in a meeting that I was shooting in the low 20 per cent.
"I looked at it as a challenge, and I would make it a point to make 200 treys after the end of every training, which definitely helped me.
"This is not the end, and I hope there is more to come. But this is all for the team because everyone is giving 100 per cent. Biggie (McClain), for example, had a foot injury and could have sat out, but he was out there scrambling and putting his body on the line for the team.
"Also, a shout-out to our fans who showed up despite the panic surrounding the virus. We played a quiet closed-door game at Hong Kong Eastern and today, we definitely felt our fans behind us. We want to kick on from here and take down the upcoming games against the Malaysia Dragons (at home on Friday and away on Sunday)."