DO you believe in destiny?
The Albury-Wodonga Bandits do.
A stunning, improbable, emotional return to South East Australian Basketball League respectability was secured lock, stock and barrel with a dramatic 65-63 win over the Dandenong Rangers at the State Basketball Centre, Wantirna, on Saturday afternoon.
The nail-biting victory gave the Border club its first championship and ensured the Bandits entered the league’s annals as the greatest fairytale story in the SEABL’s proud 31-year history.
With 14 seconds left in what had been a gripping contest, a thunderous dunk from centre Momo Ntumba gave the Bandits a two-point lead and when Dandenong import Tony Lewis missed a long three-pointer, the final buzzer sparked scenes of wild jubilation from players and fans alike.
With the Bandits again erasing a double-digit deficit — this time trailing by as many as 11 in the second quarter — coach Brad Chalmers was in no doubt club legend Allen McCowan, who tragically passed away earlier this year, had somehow played a divine role in their Cinderella story.
“I think so, I think you have to believe a little bit,” Chalmers said.
“There’s an essence to all of this and planets aligned at different times for different people and our organisation is no different.
“I just think it’s one of those things that, with our recruiting and decision-making, I just think it’s all big-picture stuff and it’s come together wonderfully.
“We won’t be the first team that has happened to but I don’t believe that anyone has come from last to win a championship, so we’ve got a piece of history that no one can ever take away from this club.
“The 2001 (conference-title) team unfortunately never got a chance to play for that championship banner but we’ve got it now and it’s something we’ll always have.”
Bandits skipper Nick Payne capped a remarkable post-season turnaround by winning the Hugh McMenamin Medal for the most valuable player of the game with 12 points and five rebounds.
Ntumba, who missed much of the first half after three early fouls, was again the pillar of the Bandits’ gritty defence, posting 16 points and a game-high 13 rebounds, including six at the offensive end.
Fellow pivot Alex Opacic picked up much of the slack in Ntumba’s first-half absence, nailing three triples on his way to 15 points.
Star playmaker Jazz Ferguson was off target from long range, missing nine of his 10 attempts but the Louisville native still scored 11 points, handed out six assists and swiped six steals for good measure.
Perhaps the biggest contribution however, came off the bench.
Guard Matt de Koeyer, who has been a spark plug at times this season, hit three three-pointers — including a clutch corner shot with two minutes remaining that gave the Bandits a four-point cushion.
For Dandenong, only Lewis, with 21 points, and fellow import Daequon Montreal (14), notched double-digit point totals.
The game opened with an offensive rebound and hook shot from Ntumba as the Bandits absorbed some early Ranger pressure.
The complexion of the game changed completely after just four minutes as three early fouls on Ntumba sent the big Congolese pivot to the bench, forcing Chalmers to a three guard line-up.
A subsequent 9-0 Rangers run gave Dandenong a 21-14 lead at the end of the first quarter.
De Koeyer opened proceedings with a triple to start the second period but the Rangers responded with another run, this time 8-0, to open up a 34-23 advantage.
With the game on the line before half-time, Chalmers gambled with Ntumba in the line-up and it paid off handsomely as the Bandits roared back into the contest, cutting the margin to just 38-34 at the long break.
Ntumba started the second half the same as the first, with a hook shot in the paint, before an Opacic triple and a Ferguson steal and lay-up gave the Bandits their first lead since early in the first quarter.
It was a back-and-forth affair for the rest of the period as another 7-0 run from the Rangers re-established a five-point advantage before the Bandits hit back, cutting the margin to just 53-52.
Both teams traded baskets for the opening minutes of a gripping final stanza with Ntumba giving the Bandits a 58-57 lead with five minutes to play.
Turnovers continued to hurt the Border club but de Koeyer’s third three-pointer made it 63-59 with two minutes to go.
The Rangers proved their mettle by tying the game on a Montreal drive with a minute to play, setting the scene for the dramatic finale.
In the women’s decider, the Dandenong Lady Rangers defeated the Knox Raiders 65-48, with former Lady Bandit Amelia Todhunter playing a starring role to secure game MVP honours.