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  • Writer's pictureChris Pike

Wildcats make finals in wild NBL season finish

The equation was simple. The Perth Wildcats had to beat the Sydney Kings by 11 or more points to close the NBL season to qualify for the finals. It turned out anything but simple with their fate decided on the very last shot of NBL23.

Perth ended up prevailing 96-84 to lock in sixth position but it was anything but easy against the league-leading defending champion Kings.

On the back of losing at RAC Arena to the Cairns Taipans on Friday night and then with Melbourne United beating the Adelaide 36ers earlier on Sunday, the Wildcats knew exactly what would be required in The Jungle against the Kings to close the NBL season.

Sydney were locked into top position no matter the result and really for all intents and purposes, had nothing to play for except to keep some momentum and form going, and to play spoilers for a Wildcats team they have developed quite the rivalry with.

It was a vastly different Perth outfit than the one that lost in disappointing fashion to Cairns also at home on Friday night. Back in front of the Red Army with 12,712 on deck to try and will them back into the finals, the 'Cats were on song from the outset.

That was except for superstar three-time MVP Bryce Cotton. Despite securing the scoring title for the season with his nine points for the game, he shot just 2/20 from the field and it was up to his teammates to step up with the season on the line.

It was Corey Webster, Luke Travers and Brady Manek who especially did that. On the back of their efforts, Perth were well and truly on track to win by more than the margin required when leading by 23 after a dunk by Manek midway through the fourth quarter.

Sydney weren’t done with yet, though, and threw everything at trying to end the Wildcats' season even with Xavier Cooks done for the game and Derrick Walton Jr having not suited up.

After the Wildcats led 89-66, the Kings made their charge and seven straight points from Justin Simon, his only points of the game, started things. Angus Glover then knocked down a wide open three and when DJ Vasiljevic connected from downtown too, suddenly the margin was only eight points with 50 seconds to play.

The Wildcats were out of the playoffs if the score stayed that way, but a Corey Webster bucket and free-throws to Manek put them back up 12.

Sydney still got two good looks at breaking Perth's heart, but Vasiljevic missed his two threes at the end for the 'Cats to hold on and win by 12 to finish in sixth position ahead of United.

Both Perth and Melbourne finished on 15-13 record and it's remarkable how tight the finish was. The Wildcats finished with a percentage of 100.47 and United 100.41. It was a two-point difference between them.

It's all the more incredible when you think back to Melbourne blowing an eight-point with 45 seconds to go when they played in Perth back on December 12.

While Cotton had a tough game for the Wildcats, Corey Webster stepped up for 26 points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals on 11/17 shooting from the floor.

Luke Travers was terrific too for 22 points, 11 rebounds and six assists while hitting 4/9 from deep with Brady Manek adding 21 points and nine boards with 4/9 three-point shooting too.

Jesse Wagstaff added 10 points and three assists, and TaShawn Thomas 10 points, five rebounds, three assists, three blocks and two steals despite hurting a knee in the opening quarter.

Wildcats coach John Rillie deliberately didn't want his players to know what they needed to win by and put faith in them to get the job done.

"I'm going to say our bandwagon will be pretty full right now," Rillie said.

"When we were 5-7 and lost five in-a-row, it was only a room full of guys who believed so that's what I'm most proud of about this team. It came down to the wire and we made it, so let's go and win it.

"We never talked about needing to win by a certain margin. We played the game to win it and if we played the right way, good shit will happen for us. We did not talk about the points spread at all."

The 'Cats will now take on the South East Melbourne Phoenix at John Cain Arena in an elimination play-in game on Thursday night.

The winner of that game will take on the loser of the Cairns Taipans-Tasmania JackJumpers clash also on Thursday.

IMAGE: Getty Images

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