Defence first, everything else second.
Mt Gambier Pioneers’ change in fortunes since hiring veteran coach Richard Hill can be put down to just that first phrase.
Sure the Pioneers have signed some exceptional imports led by defensive aces Damian Johnson and Tyrone Lee and have also maintained a roster of leading South Australian talents like Tom Daly, Erik Burdon and Brad Hill.
But the constant in the team is their undying belief in defence.
“DJ is the best defender in the competition by a long way, Tryone Lee isn’t that far behind him and Tom Daly is an unbelievable defender too,” Hill said.
“I think if SEABL had an all-star five for defence we would have three guys in it - we’ve been great defensively all year.”
Hill’s Pioneers won their second-straight SEABL championship on Saturday beating Albury-Wodonga Bandits 87-76 at Dandenong Stadium.
In a willing, physical and see-sawing game, the Pioneers kept themselves clear of foul trouble before running over the Bandits in the final term after star import Cory Dixon and burly big man Alex Bogart-King had both fouled out.
Johnson made the most of some clear air in the final term scoring 13 of his 21 points to go with 17 rebounds, three assists and three blocks plus the Hugh McMenamin Medal as the Grans Final most valuable player.
The Pioneers players’ certainly agreed chanting “MVP, MVP, MVP” as Johnson walked up to receive his medal.
Defence is so often seen as beating an opponent with man-on-man coverage but the Pioneers’ aren’t adverse to switching to a zone defence, something they did to shut down the Bandits’ penetration in the second half.
“I took a chance and went to a zone which was a big call,” Hill said post-game.
“We were in a bit of foul trouble but they don’t play any zone at all so I figured they probably don’t practice much zone attack at training and that proved to be the game-changer for us tactically.
“Once Damian Johnson started to put some points on the board to go with his defensive stuff then the game changed for us as well.
“We were settling for jump shots early but once we were able to get the ball inside we had a foul advantage.”
Burdon, an Adelaide raised guard who spent time with NBL club Adelaide 36ers, has been with the Pioneers for six years and he said he continued to return to the club before of the supporters and, more recently, the side’s success.
Burdon followed Matt Sutton up to the Pioneers and now the pair are co-captains.
“The first few years I was here we struggled a bit but we have slowly built our program and trusted our processes,” Burdon said.
“Richard came in and put in a system which we all believe in and we just have to execute it and it results in championships.
“So much of the improvement has come off the court with the board members doing a great job with providing us with what we need on the road while at home we have the best crowd in SEABL.”
Burdon scored a team-high 22 points in the Grand Final including 5-7 shooting from the three-point line.
“On our team anyone can have an impact at any time - we sort of take terms in having the spotlight during the game,” Burdon said.
“One minute it will be one guy then it will be another - we find whoever is hot and stick to them.
“The plan this whole year was to win back-to-back titles and it means a lot to the whole community as well - it’s for those guys as much as it is for us.”
SEABL Grand Final notables
*Mt Gambier star Damian Johnson was truly the most valuable player with 21 points, 17 rebounds, three assists and three blocks while his final term baskets proved decisive for his side as both teams tired.
*Erik Burdon’s 22 points including 5-7 three-point shooting were also essential, especially as his second term baskets stopped the Bandits from building a lead heading into half-time.
*Tom Daly’s 19 points, five rebounds and three assists cannot be underrated nor can his calm ball-handling under some physical defence from the Bandits, Daly also made a half-court buzzer beater heading into three-quarter time which pushed his club’s lead out to 66-61.
*Pioneers’ Tyrone Lee and Brad Hill had 10 points each and both threatened to have even bigger performances but were slowed by inaccurate shooting and foul trouble.
*Albury-Wodonga won the rebound count 48-40 but fouled more (23-18) and shot less free throws (MtG 22-26, A-B 14-20) - the Pioneers also shot better from the three-point line making 9-20 shots compared to 4-22 long balls from the Bandits.
*Bandits star Donte Nicholas did everything he could for his side with a game-high 24 points, 16 rebounds and four steals.
*Bandits’ power forward Cory Nixon fouled out but still had 17 points and 12 rebounds in 35 minutes.
*Bandits’ guard Deba George had 17 points but couldn’t regain his stroke in the final term when his club needed more scoring while Alex Bogart-King gave his club a lift with his energetic post play off the bench.
SEABL media links
*A lively Steve Smith (@Stevesmithffx) penned this grand final match report for the SEABL website. Report: http://www.seabl.com.au/index.php?id=257&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=10368&cHash=a82f5b9d52
*Smith also filed a match report on the SEABL women’s grand final. Report: http://www.seabl.com.au/index.php?id=257&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=10369&cHash=9f727316be
*The SEABL website also reports on the league award winners. Report: http://www.seabl.com.au/index.php?id=257&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=10367&cHash=c334e6f325
*Ballarat Courier’s Melanie Whelan (@Melanie_whelan) reports on Melbourne United and Cairns Taipans’ preseason game in Ballarat. Report: http://www.thecourier.com.au/story/3346045/nbl-action-gives-fans-taste-of-home-product/?cs=63
*Hobart Mercury’s Adam Smith reports Hobart Chargers are looking for a new coach. Report: http://www.themercury.com.au/sport/local-sport/hobart-chargers-to-search-for-another-coach-after-ben-rush-resigns/story-fnj92b0f-1227515993829
*Dandenong Journal’s Jarrod Potter (@JarrodPotter) filed this comprehensive report on the Rangers’ win in the SEABL women’s grand final. Report: http://dandenong.starcommunity.com.au/journal/2015-09-13/faith-no-more/
*Leader’s Megan Hustwaite reported on Kilsyth Cobras’ SEABL women’s grand final loss and their successful season. Story: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/leader/outer-east/kilsyth-fights-until-the-end-in-seabl-championship-loss-to-powerhouse-dandenong-rangers/story-fnrwkho1-1227524867110
*The Age reported on new Melbourne United signing Emmanuel Golong. Story: http://www.theage.com.au/sport/basketball/melbourne-united-signing-emmanuel-golong-in-right-place-after-street-fight-20150912-gjl1v2.html
*The Age also reported on former SEABL star Patty Mills’ hopes for the upcoming NBA season. Story: http://www.theage.com.au/sport/basketball/san-antonio-spurs-star-patty-mills-embraces-bigger-role-with-his-nba-club-20150912-gjl2it.html
*SEABL YouTube has a full replay of Mt Gambier’s SEABL grand final win. Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNmSU5ifyNg
*SEABL YouTube has a full replay of Dandenong’s SEABL women’s grand final win. Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Twgp-Q9u34
*Australian legend Lindsay Gaze’s speech to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame after being inducted over the weekend. Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ifdAw2P_qlE
Roy Ward (@rpjward) is a freelance sports writer who has covered the NBA, NBL, WNBL, SEABL and Big V during his career. He will be filing weekly columns on the SEABL men’s and women’s competitions during this season. For feedback or suggestions send Roy a tweet or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.