The NBL1 Cobra Men have seen their 2019 campaign come to an end, falling short at home to Bendigo, 104-115 in the NBL1 Semi Finals on Sunday.
The Cobras entered Sunday’s final undermanned once again, with star big man Tohi Smith-Milner in New Zealand with national team commitments. Coupled with a nagging hip injury to centre Chris Patton, and Desmond Owili returning for his first game in seven weeks, the Cobras were challenged up front from the get-go, struggling to contain league MVP front-runner, Ray Turner.
With Turner – the league’s leading scorer – having his way inside, the Cobras found themselves in a big hole early, trailing 18-33 after one period of play. Kilsyth would get going late in the second period and early moments of the third, though, riding their own Turner – Isaac Turner – to pull to within 52-58 two minutes into the second half. But the Braves closed the third period with a crushing 9-2 run, pushing their lead out to 17 heading into the final stanza.
With Patton fouling out of the game early in the fourth quarter, the Braves took advantage on the interior once again, with Ray Turner sparking a 12-2 run to give Bendigo a commanding 26 point lead with just over five minutes remaining. The Cobras weren’t done, though, catching fire with an incredible late shooting display to almost pull off an all-time great comeback.
The Cobras went to a full court run and jump press, forcing eight Bendigo turnovers over the final five minutes to fuel a remarkable scoring spurt. The Cobras erupted for 33 points to close the game – with 25 coming in the final 2:30 – to pull to within 98-107 with 43 seconds remaining. They then forced what appeared to be a ninth Bendigo turnover with a five-second count, but a foul was first called, putting an end to their impressive late comeback bid and their 2019 season.
Isaac Turner capped a standout season with a 33 point outing; Sean Macdonald and Felix von Hofe scored 14 apiece; Patton added 13; Peter Hooley chipped in with 10; and Michael Wearne recorded nine points and seven assists off the bench. Despite the loss, Cobras head coach, Justin Schueller, was impressed with his team’s no-quit mentality on Sunday, something that has resonated through the group throughout the 2019 season.
“I have a sense of pride of how our group has stuck together and in particular the way we finished the last month of the season,” Schueller said.
“Through injuries and players missing, there was not one complaint and we continued to find ways to win. The fight in the group can’t be questioned, and was evident in the comeback late on the weekend.”
The final month of the season was indeed a brutal one for the Cobras, with Smith-Milner, Macdonald, Hooley, Patton and Owili each missing significant time through a variety of injuries, absences and national team commitments. Add in a season-ending injury to defensive stud, Owen Odigie, back in mid-June, and the Cobras were truly facing an uphill battle to meet their preseason expectations of playing-off for the inaugural NBL1 championship. But despite the wild roster changes throughout the season, Schueller still believed the Cobras were capable of advancing to the title game, and is now left to ponder what could have been in 2019.
“It will be one of those years I’ll look at what could have been – we never found our true rhythm and it’s frustrating we didn’t have more luck on our side with injuries,” Schueller said.
“That said, we don’t make excuses. We put ourselves in position to win each game in the playoffs and couldn’t get over the line. We didn’t achieve our goals that we set and that’s frustrating, as we have high standards and we didn’t meet them.”
The Cobras disappointment highlighted the talent-level and depth of the NBL1 competition as a whole, with the preseason championship favourites unable to advance past the Semi Finals with an undermanned roster. While a healthy roster would have seen the Cobras push for a title in 2019, Schueller believes that alone isn’t enough to get it done in 2020, with the profile of the league rapidly growing and teams looking to match that with high profile talent.
“Now we review and find ways to get better, as we have to improve for next year,” Schueller added.
“This league is too strong and only ever improving.”
Schueller had one parting message for the Cobras fans, who came out in abundance this season to create a serious home court advantage for both the Men’s and Women’s teams.
“Thanks to all that came out and supported us through the year – it is greatly appreciated.”