A monster third quarter by the Sydney Kings has seen the home team run over Cairns Taipans 95-87 in game one of the best-of-three semi-finals series at Qudos Bank Arena on Wednesday night.
For the first half of the game it appeared a major upset was on the cards as the visitors out-shot, out-hustled and out-muscled the title favourites to lead by nine at the long break.
Yet the Kings would not have it.
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The home team exploded in the third quarter, out-scoring Cairns 27-10 and heading into the final stanza leading by eight.
League MVP Xavier Cooks (27 points, 14 rebounds and two stadium-rattling dunks) was again his team’s best but Sydney had several contributors notably Derrick Walton Jnr (21 points, five assists) and Tim Soares (14 points, four rebounds).
Xavier Cooks wins NBL MVP | 00:45
Early doors and the Kings went out to a 5-0 early lead while the Taipans had the fumbles. A charging foul against Cooks was negated by travel and technical fouls against Walton Jnr.
It was hotly-contested under the basket with 211cm man Soares and 208cm Kiwi Sam Waardenberg factors at both ends.
Soares had seven points from 100 per cent of shots in the first quarter while Waardenburg recorded six points (100%), two of them from the free-throw line as the crowd chanted ‘Hungry Jacks’ and a fan with a Swiss cowbell did his best.
When Kouat Noi made a silky lay-up basket the Kings went to an 8-point lead.
It was as good as it got for Sydney in the first half. After technical fouls against Cooks and DJ Vasiljevic, the crowd gained voice and Cairns trailed by five.
Yet three-pointers by Majok Deng and Jonah Antonio saw the Cairns go to the first break with a one-point lead.
In the second quarter Sydney was out-enthused and out-shot by Cairns, going to an 8-point lead midway through the second quarter. When Sydney was on the right side of the referees’ calls coach Chase Buford waved his arms in corkscrew, ‘about time’ fashion.
But Antonio would not be denied and was the Taipans best man in the second quarter, raining three-point bombs like Canberra Cannons bald point guard Phil Smyth.
When Bul Kuol landed his own from outside the D it was Taipans by 12. Jaylin Galloway landed a monster dunk for Sydney but when Antonio announced himself on fire with another three, it was Taipans by nine at half time.
A Cooks intercept and dunk, followed by a huge block began the third quarter for Sydney. Vasiljevic and Walton Jnr missed before Walton Jnr hit a three. And Cooks came again, a force of nature. Taipans by six.
When Vaandenburg was ejected for his fourth and fifth foul in quick succession (the fifth and final one for vocally disagreeing with the fourth one), the Taipans had lost their most effective big man under the basket. And the Kings kept on coming.
MAKE SOME NOISE
Cooks set the King Dome alight with a massive dunk through the meat of the Taipains D-line that begat a free throw. When Justin Simon landed a three pointer the crowd roared like the Coliseum. The Kings were up and on their way.
They were roars matched only for a fan at the break who landed a halfway basket and won $50,000.
CROWD UP FOR X-MAN PRE-MATCH
Cooks’ warm-up was briefly interrupted when he was presented to the crowd as the NBL’s MVP. It is the third time in five years a Kings player has been awarded MVP, Cooks following in the footsteps of Andrew Bogut (2019) and Jaylen Adams (2022).