Take heed Hawks rivals – it might not be wise to make Rotnei Clarke mad.
Illawarra’s sharpshooting import had a match-winning impact off the bench on Saturday night at WIN Entertainment Centre, firing his team to a come-from-behind 95-92 triumph over league leaders Adelaide.
Clarke had been his usual mild-mannered, polite self before tangling with feisty Sixers guard Brendan Teys midway through the third quarter.
The pair was whistled for a double foul and the incident clearly stayed with the former league MVP, transforming him into an aggressive, adrenaline-charged scoring machine.
He finished with a game-high 25 points, as Illawarra claimed their 13th win of the season to remain in second spot, while Adelaide’s winning streak was halted at six games.
Veteran Hawks forward Oscar Forman celebrated his 200th game with the club on a winning note and made some clutch plays in the fourth quarter, while the 36ers’ loss was just their second in their past 16 matches.
Despite losing the season series to Illawarra 3-1, Adelaide is still assured of finishing on top.
In a fiercely contested battle that had a bit of everything, the Hawks overturned a nine-point deficit in the second half to claim one of their most important wins of the season.
Marvelle Harris posted 14 points for the Hawks, Rhys Martin added 12, while AJ Ogilvy racked up 10 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and four blocks – his biggest rejection coming in the final seconds when he pinned Sixers ace Jerome Randle against the backboard.
Randle was held to 15 points on 7/19 shooting, while Daniel Johnson finished with a team-high 22. Nathan Sobey and Eric Jacobsen added 16 apiece for the Sixers.
“We just played the best team in the country and to beat them is special,” Illawarra coach Rob Beveridge said.
“It’s an outstanding win for the club. We lost two last week and if we’d lost tonight we would’ve been on a slide.
“Tonight, we showed we can compete with the best team in the league and beat them.
“Every single team in the league wanted us to lose tonight. Our backs were against the wall so it’s really pleasing to put in such a gritty performance.
“That doesn’t put us in the playoffs, and we certainly won’t make it if we have the attitude we’re already there, but what that win does for us tonight is keep us in the fight.”
The Hawks got the start they wanted, bolting to a 6-0 lead and holding the Sixers to two points in the first three minutes.
But Adelaide typically wouldn’t be denied for long, peeling off an 11-0 run and sucking Illawarra into early foul trouble.
Sobey had nine points in the first period, while Jacobsen scrapped his way to eight off the bench, as the 36ers strode to a 29-25 quarter-time lead.
Adelaide coach Joey Wright picked up a tech foul 31 seconds into the second period and the game was soon locked at 31-all.
Randle buried back-to-back jumpers before Harris did likewise at the other end, but Johnson was hitting inside and outside and the Sixers were up 49-44 at half-time.
Johnson led with 13 points, while Sobey had 11 points and six assists.
Harris had his best half in a long time with 13 points and Tim Coenraad was productive with five points and six rebounds off the bench.
Illawarra struggled at the free throw line, making just 3/9 as a team.
The Sixers were cruising with a nine-point lead in the third period, but the Hawks suddenly caught fire, forging ahead with 10 unanswered points.
Clarke splashed consecutive threes and showed a rare flash of anger when he tangled with Teys.
The lead repeatedly changed hands over the final five minutes of the third before Martin’s steal and layup in the dying seconds put the Hawks up 71-70, setting up a tense final quarter.
Clarke was clearly fired up after his run-in with Teys, rattling in his sixth triple of the game to extend his team’s lead to 84-75 with just under six minutes to play.
“It was a physical game and if the playoffs are going to be played like that we’ll probably have to make some adjustments as a team,” Adelaide coach Joey Wright said.
“The zone slowed us a bit and our defence broke down in the second half. We gave them too many open looks and they executed.”
The Hawks host Cairns next Friday before wrapping up round 18 with a Monday night road game against Melbourne United.
Adelaide’s only round 18 game is next Saturday’s home clash with New Zealand.
ILLAWARRA HAWKS 95 (Clarke 25, Harris 14, Martin 12)
ADELAIDE 36ERS 92 (Johnson 22, Jacobsen 16, Sobey 16)