The Australian men’s wheelchair basketball team have escaped with a 62-60 win over Turkey after an incredible finish to their Pool A match at Carioca Arena 1.
Trailing by six points with just over two minutes remaining, the Rollers showed all of their trademark fight and more, to defensively close-up on Turkey, before finding clutch baskets at the death to secure a second consecutive win and remain undefeated at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games.
With Turkey having pushed the Rollers to the brink at the 2014 World Championships in Korea, coach Ben Ettridge sent his charges out on to court, with a message to protect the paint, capitalise on rebound strength and maximise opportunities in offense by pushing hard to create space.
The Aussies were bright early and managed to open a small buffer, before Turkey’s Ozgur Gurbulak found a hot hand – nailing two threes to lift the crowd and rally his troops, heading to quarter time with a three point, 20-17 lead.
Tristan Knowles (17 points, 8 rebounds) lifted his side back into the ascendency in the second quarter, as the Australians managed to find an answer to the Turkey press and found swift transition to the basket, with the Rollers capitalising on a 10-0 run towards half-time, to break with a slender advantage, at 34-33.
In front of 6,691 fans, Turkey came out guns blazing in the third, to force the Australians into a series of errors; with Gurbulak (27pts) and Deniz Acar (17pts) pushing the Europeans in front and establishing a nine point lead that threatened to become critical.
The Rollers – sharing the points across the board, managed to defuse the onslaught, and reached the final change, just four points in arrears (46-50) but very much in strike.
With five lead changes throughout the match, a grandstand finish seemed assured, and the promised finale didn’t disappoint. Turkey led with just over two minutes on the clock, by six points. But after failing to extend that margin, Australia found big momentum, first through Shaun Norris (12pts) and then Bill Latham (14pts), who arguably played his finest match in a Rollers singlet at Paralympic level.
Latham pulled in 11 rebounds, including four at the offensive end, allowing Australia to score 11 second chance points over the course of the match, which ultimately proved decisive. Australia built a narrow two point lead, after Latham converted from a Norris assist, and then held firm at the death, to avoid the nerves of overtime.
Top scorer for a second consecutive match, Tristan Knowles said his side always believed it could win, despite the tight nature of the closing stages.
“We’ve been in some pretty tricky situations, I was going to say over the last four years, but probably over the last eight, nine, ten years where the core group has been together and we have a firm belief that if we stick to our processes, then our processes will get us out of just about any hole,” he said.
“When we found ourselves down by six with about two minutes, two and a half minutes to go, then it was just about getting a lock down defensively, which is just a grind, just a matter of working harder than them. We were able to do that and fortunately Norris and Latham were able to put the points on the board in the end.”
Coach Ben Ettridge echoed Knowles’ sentiments, saying that experience and team morale got them the win and admitted it was a victory that left him feeling proud of the group.
“We just spoke about our belief in one another and how much we love playing for each other and essentially that’s what gets us through the tough times, is the 17 guys (12 players, five support staff) that are sitting around you,” Ettridge said.
“We just wanted to manage our emotions there and we knew that if we stuck to our game plan, things would eventually fall our way.”
“It’s a big stage, and all you want them to do is to go out and play their best. Look, it was a patchy game for us but we got it right in the last two and half minutes.”
The Rollers next face a replay of the 2012 Paralympic final, when they meet Canada at the Rio Olympic Arena on Day 3.