The Night n' Day Otago Nuggets have fallen short of the Steelformers Taranaki Airs in a crucial contest for both teams - the visitors splitting the Southern Swing with a 98-73 win on Sunday afternoon and moving to 10 wins in one of the franchise's best ever seasons.
The Final 6 is now well and truly in sight of the Airs, perhaps even a top-two spot and an easier path to glory. However, the same can't be said for the Nuggets as a third loss in their last four home outings almost certainly keeps them in a battle just to make the playoffs.
The Nuggets have make-or-break clashes against the Sharks and Bulls to come, both at the Edgar Centre, though home court advantage isn't really applicable given their recent run of outs on their local boards.
In a hotly anticipated clash both teams were missing key players out on national team duty - the Airs minus Tai Wynyard and Richie Rodger, the Nuggets without Sam Timmins. Meanwhile, Nikau McCullough was also sidelined with illness for the home team.
Coming off an upset loss on Friday night against the Southland Sharks, the Airs immediately made their intentions known at the Edgar Centre with stars Javonte Douglas and Anthony Hilliard showing their scoring prowess, leading the visitors to a 25-17 start.
Reminded of the importance of the game and what was at stake, the Nuggets found their groove early in the second and built off some slick play at both ends by star guard Tray Boyd, while Keith Williams was finding his way to the basket a little too easy at times.
Boyd helped himself to 14 points in a second-quarter blitz in a dazzling display that brought the large crowd to life.
Though the Nuggets won the second quarter 28-24, the Airs still held sway at the half (49-45) and would have been well pleased to have held Todd Withers scoreless.
That narrow margin would soon blow out as the Airs hit the accelerator early in the third period, leaving the Nuggets in their dust as they loaded up on triples mixed with endless drives to the basket. Shaun Willett and Marcel Jones joined the scoring party as the Airs mastered a 35-14 quarter - seemingly pushing the game beyond reach for the Nuggets.
Despite trying to make inroads early in the last quarter, the Nuggets just couldn't match the power of the Airs' triple-headed import monster.
With Hilliard, Willett and Douglas off the leash, the game was done. Hats off also to Jones who finished with a perfect 19 points without a miss.
Both Williams and Boyd did their bit for the Nuggets with a collective 56 of their team's 73 points, but they lacked a third scorer and it showed in the final result.
SCORE: Nuggets 73, Airs 98
Nuggets: Boyd 29 PTS | Williams 27 PTS
Airs: Hilliard 25 PTS | Douglas 23 PTS | Willett 18 PTS, 10 REB | Jones 19 PTS
Full box score HERE.
Stuff MVP Votes
Javonte Douglas (Airs) - 10 votes
Anthony Hilliard (Airs) - 8 votes
Keith Williams (Nuggets) - 4 votes
Tray Boyd III (Nuggets) - 4 votes
Carlin Davison (Airs) - 4 votes
Nuggets - vs Sharks (H) - Wednesday July 27
Airs - vs Bulls (A) - Friday July 29