The Perth Wildcats are just one win away from claiming a record sixth NBL crown after beating Adelaide 92-85 in the opening game of the best-of-three grand final series in Perth.
The Wildcats led by double digits for most of the match, but they endured some nervy moments at the death when the 36ers closed the gap to just three points with 20 seconds remaining.
However, Wildcats import Jermaine Beal sealed the win on Monday night when he was able to hold his nerve at the free throw line.
Just five days on missing out on the league MVP award, Wildcats import James Ennis drained 30 points in a standout performance, while Beal (19), Shawn Redhage (13) and Greg Hire (10) were also important.
Adelaide centre Daniel Johnson was hot early before finishing with 18 points, while Brendan Teys (14) and Adam Gibson (13) also hit double figures.
The Wildcats can wrap up the title with victory in Adelaide on Friday.
Should the series go to a deciding third game, it will be played in Perth on Sunday.
The Wildcats, spurred on by 13,291 screaming fans, entered the match as the hottest of favourites.
Adelaide big man Johnson scored 10 early points to give the Wildcats something to worry about.
But the 36ers couldn’t find an answer for the likes of Ennis, Redhage and Beal, with the trio combining for 21 points in the opening term to give the Wildcats a 29-24 edge.
Beal nailed two long-range bombs in the second quarter to keep the Wildcats rolling, with the team’s suffocating defence helping them build an 11-point lead by the long break.
Wildcats skipper Damian Martin picked up his third foul midway through the second quarter, forcing coach Trevor Gleeson to bench the star guard for the remainder of the term.
But the 36ers had even more worries, with guard Adam Gibson going scoreless in the first half and import Gary Ervin scoring just five.
Martin spent most of the third term on the bench after picking up his fourth foul, but it mattered little as the Wildcats edged the margin to 12 points heading into the last quarter.
Gibson hit some hot form in the final quarter, with his back-to-back threes closing the gap to eight points.
The 36ers kept coming, but they ran out of time at the end, with Beal’s calm temperament at the free throw line proving crucial.
There was no repeat of the Valentine’s Day bust-up between the two sides, when even the coaches got involved in the push and shove.
“We knew they weren’t going to roll over,” Wildcats coach Trevor Gleeson said of Adelaide.
“We know these guys are going to come at us, and I was pleased with the resilience we showed out there.
“That crowd was unbelievable. When it started rocking, I was going to go, ‘shhh, we’re shooting foul shots’, but it’s fantastic.”
The Wildcats were gifted a staggering 47 free throws, leaving Adelaide coach Joey Wright flabbergasted at some of the refereeing.
“I’m at a loss,” Wright said.
“They got 31 of their 92 points from the line. We can do a better job at that, or some other people can do a better job.
“They did a better job at going after those boards, and their pushes didn’t seem to be the same as our pushes.”
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