IT didn’t take long for the bubble to burst.
The Albury-Wodonga Bandits tipped off their SEABL championship defence on Saturday night with a disappointing 96-87 defeat to the fired-up Dandenong Rangers.
In front of a packed home crowd at the Lauren Jackson Sports Centre, the Border club unveiled its cherished conference and national championship banners before quickly discovering defending a title will be much harder than winning it.
A lacklustre, error-strewn third quarter from the Bandits proved the difference between the two teams as the Rangers grabbed a slice of revenge for last year’s stunning grand final defeat.
New playmaker Eric Vann top-scored for the Bandits with 20 points but missed 13 of his 19 shots and coughed up the ball five times.
Fellow import Momo Ntumba was restricted by first-half foul trouble and posted 15 points and nine boards while Ben Hollis battled manfully to finish with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
For Dandenong, the frontcourt combination of Daequon Montreal (22 points), Brent Hobba (21) and Tony Lewis (19) proved too much for the hosts to handle.
Bandits coach Brad Chalmers was decidedly unimpressed with his team’s defensive efforts but was confident there was nothing a few adjustments wouldn’t fix.
“It was disappointing,” Chalmers said.
“The first few games in particular, you really need your defence to be locked in.
“Offensively you won’t be as crisp but tonight was more about our ability to follow instructions.
“We were lost defensively, our rotations poor, close-outs were non-existent and, fundamentally, we fell over on defence during the third quarter and that was the game.”
The Bandits jumped out to an early lead thanks largely to Vann and Ntumba.
Although a third foul quickly sent the Congolese all-star to the bench, the Bandits were undeterred.
They raced out to a 29-23 lead after the first quarter.
But the Rangers were not easily pushed aside.
They opened the second quarter with a burst to cut the margin to one before finishing the first half with another flourish to claim a 54-53 advantage.
It was an execrable third quarter for the Bandits.
They threw it all away with a litany of forced shots, bad passes and indifferent defensive rotations, handing the Rangers a 15-point buffer that was rarely threatened after that.
The hosts tried several times throughout the last period to cut into the deficit but the Rangers always had an answer at the offensive end to keep the Bandits at arm’s length, easing to the finish line and the eventual nine-point final margin.