IT was the championship triumph no one thought possible. After a miserable decade in the basketball wilderness, the Albury-Wodonga Bandits claimed just their second SEABL conference crown on Saturday night with a gritty 77-69 win over the Knox Raiders.
More than 1200 raucous fans packed the Lauren Jackson Sports Centre to watch the Border outfit honour the memory of club icon Allen McCowan in the most spectacular way imaginable.
The Bandits will now head to Melbourne on Saturday to take on East Conference titleholders Dandenong Rangers for the right to call themselves SEABL champions.
BASKETBALL writer Steve Smith wraps up the historic victory.
THE sign in the locker room said it all.
“You’re 40 minutes from eternal remembrance.”
And, remarkably, the 2012 Albury-Wodonga Bandits were the little team that could.
The Border club completed the fairytale no one thought possible — becoming the first team to go from last to champions — with an emotion-riddled South East Australian Basketball League South Conference championship triumph on Saturday night.
The 77-69 win over the Knox Raiders in front of 1200 raucous, passionate fans at the Lauren Jackson Sports Centre gave the Bandits just their second title in the club’s proud 28-year history.
In a gritty, get-down-and-dirty contest, the Bandits took some early body blows from a savvy veteran team that battled bravely but were ultimately undone by what has been the Border outfit’s calling card all year.
Defence. And lots of it.
Swarming over the visitors, the Bandits recovered from a horrendous opening five minutes to storm back and then past a gallant Knox team that could never quite muster enough offence to threaten its hosts.
Knox’s SEABL most valuable player candidate C.J. Massingale was held to just 16 points on a less-than-stellar 6-20 shooting clip, while veteran big man Stephen Hoare would contribute just the solitary basket.
Former Bandits swingman Michael Hill was the lone standout for the visitors with a sublime 26-point performance that included three triples.
But it was Bandits imports Momo Ntumba and Jazz Ferguson who proved the difference.
In a dominant inside performance, Ntumba scored 22 points and dragged down a game-high 17 rebounds, including an unbelievable 12 offensive boards.
Ferguson may have struggled from the field, missing 22 of the 30 shots he attempted but he nailed four three-pointers on his way to 23 points and hauled down seven rebounds of his own for good measure.
Skipper Nick Payne continued his Indian summer of a post-season, adding a tidy double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds, while Alex Opacic chimed in with 11 points.
The Raiders roared out of the gate, racing to a 16-4 lead on the back of seven points from Hill and some offensive struggles for the Bandits.
But after the early barrage, both teams struggled for offensive rhythm and a Ntumba transition basket gave fans a reason to get loud with three minutes left in the first.
A Ferguson pull-up three on the quarter-time buzzer not only sparked the rabid fans into action but more importantly, it cut the margin to just 23-20.
Consecutive baskets to open the second stanza got the Bandits the lead for the first time in the game as Ntumba continued to own the offensive boards for the Border club.
A clearly hobbled Lester Strong missed several wide-open chances at the buzzer as the Bandits improbably skipped to the locker room with a 40-36 lead, having outscored the Raiders 20-13 for the second quarter.
Hill started the second half the same way he began the first, with a three-pointer, but Ferguson quickly replied with a three of his own.
In a crucial sequence with four minutes remaining in the third, Ntumba scored in the low post before Ferguson hit a three to give the Bandits a 58-46 lead.
With one quarter to play and a 63-52 lead the Bandits extended the margin with a basket from Ntumba to open the final period.
Another transition basket, this time to Ben Hollis, and the Lauren Jackson Sports Centre was a din, the hosts holding tight to a 67-52 lead with eight minutes to play.
Massingale finally nailed a three to cut the margin to 73-66 with two minutes to go and the tension was palpable.
Free throws from Payne and Ferguson sealed the win and, fittingly, it was the captain who dribbled out the clock on a pressure-releasing victory.
Nothing they do will ever be better.
Scroll down to follow highlights from the match.
7.15pm: Welcome to the Lauren Jackson Sports Centre, Jamie Horne and Steve Smith bringing you all the action live tonight as the Albury-Wodonga Bandits take on the Knox Raiders for the South Conference SEABL title.
Atmosphere is building here at the LJSC, stands filling fast. Bandits looking sharp in their warm-ups.
7.20pm: Just under 10 minutes until the tip. Knox big man Lester Strong, who has been battling injury, being worked on heavily by physio staff.
1st quarter: Knox get the jump on the Bandits, whose shots are not dropping. Momo Ntumba with a stack of early rebounds. 7-16 Raiders, 4 to go 1st.
End of 1st: Ferguson with the big three on the buzzer to see the home team head into the first change down 20-23. Mick Hill hot for Knox, Ntumba super strong for the Bandits.
2nd quarter: Bandits find their rhythm. Ferguson, Nick Payne and Alex Opacic finding the bottom of the net from deep. Ntumba with a double-double already. 40-35 Bandits seconds from the half.
THREE-QUARTER-TIME: Okay, we've resolved our tech issues, apologies. And it is GAME ON for the Bandits!
A the final break, the Border Bandits are in front 63-52.
Ntumba has been excellent - he has 16 points, 16 rebounds. Jazz Ferguson has 22 points.
QTR4: Ntumba open up the scoring in the fourth, Bandits up 65-52!
Jazz Ferguson picks up his fourth foul... could spell trouble...
Momo is owning this game at both ends, frustrating Knox's big men with his size, touch and presence.
QTR4 6MINS REMAINING: Bandits hold 12 point lead. Their hustle is exceptional. Both teams in scoring lull, however...
QTR4 2.37 REMAINING: The bandits still have their 12-point lead - 73-61... and there is a timeout. Game very much still up for grabs...
QTR4: Uh oh, CJ Massingale with five straight for Knox... score back to 73-66...
QTR4 1.27 REMAINING: Payne goes to the line for Bandits! Crucial here...
He nails one...
Jazz steals, Opacic scores with 1MIN left!
QTR4 35 SECONDS LEFT: Bandits title seconds away! They lead 76-59 with ball in hand!
QTR4 27 SECONDS LEFT: Knox foul, Knox in penalty, Jazz to the line... he misses the first...
He makes the second!
IT'S OVER! Bandits win!
The Border Bandits are the 2012 South Conference SEABL CHAMPIONS!
FINAL SCORE: Bandits won 77-69!
Incredibly emotional scenes here - players have flocked to Caroline McCowan who sheds tears... Her husband, Bandits legend Al McCowan, sadly passed away mid-season. You certainly feel like this one's for Al...
The Lauren Jackson Stadium is rocking right now, as the team accepts their prize!
I'm heading into the rooms now to chat to players and soak up the emotion... Read about it all form Steve Smith and myself in Sunday's Border Mail, with some really great images.
Until then, take care and GO BANDITS!
SUNDAY: Head to bordermail.com.au to find out who wins the final leg of this bumper weekend in Border sport - the Wodonga Raiders v Lavington elimination O&M final.