Goulding, Melbourne bounce back in tight win over Hawks

Shayne Hope |

Melbourne United’s Chris Goulding (left) puts pressure on the Illawarra Hawks’ Todd Blanchfield.
Melbourne United’s Chris Goulding (left) puts pressure on the Illawarra Hawks’ Todd Blanchfield.

Melbourne United sharpshooter Chris Goulding has rekindled his hot form ahead of the NBL Finals, steering the title favourites to a tense 92-87 win over Illawarra in a tasty preview of the post-season.

After a shock road loss to Cairns on Friday, when Melbourne’s wayward shooting proved costly, the ladder leaders bounced back at John Cain Arena on Sunday in their last game of the regular season.

Goulding (19 points) and fellow veteran Matthew Dellavedova (17) fired for United, with import Ian Clark and rising star Luke Travers (13 each) both influential off the bench.

Among the league MVP contenders early in the season, Goulding had a quiet few weeks before exploding in the second half against Illawarra.

The league’s most prolific three-point shooter poured in 16 points after the main break and delivered a pair of late daggers from long range to sink the in-form Hawks, who had won five of their previous six games.

“We’ve been pretty successful when he’s shot 10-plus threes, so we’re glad that he came out hunting in the second half,” Melbourne coach Dean Vickerman said.

“We started screening for him and making him a focal point to get him moving off the basketball.

“It takes everybody in the group to make sure that we keep getting him good shots and there were some (isolation) situations where he just made plays and was able to pull up people off his own dribble.

“We’ve got a few guys that when it all breaks down can really go and make a shot, and he’s one of them.”

The result meant Melbourne (20-8) finished the regular season three wins clear of second-placed Perth (17-11) on top of the ladder.

Illawarra (14-14) hung onto fourth spot after fellow finalists New Zealand (13-15) lost to second-from-bottom Adelaide in the final game of the regular season later on Sunday.

The Hawks have turned their campaign around since head coach Justin Tatum took over from Jacob Jackomas, who was sacked in November, and showed fighting qualities in Melbourne.

They erased an early double-digit deficit and led at half-time as Tyler Harvey (13 points) and Sam Froling (12 points, nine rebounds) made their presence felt.

The lead changed hands four times in the final period but Froling fouled out in the dying stages and Illawarra fell narrowly short despite Justin Robinson’s team-high 14 points.

“We’re on everybody’s radar right now,” Tatum said, looking ahead to a Seeding Qualifier match-up with Tasmania in the Play-In Tournament.

“We’re going to compete for 40 minutes, we have the talent and we have the guys that want to find a way to win.

“I’m disappointed that we lost the game in many fashions but I’m pretty happy with how the guys competed in this type of environment.”

Tatum played down concerns over Gary Clark’s fitness after the import forward rolled his right ankle in a nasty-looking incident during the second half.