Rising Phoenix put the NBL on notice in debut game

MELBOURNE -- "We finally have two Melbourne teams back in the NBL!"

It was these 10 words, proclaimed by Melbourne Arena's courtside announcer, which had the capacity crowd rocking before a single player had taken to the floor for the NBL season opener.

Melbourne United was always going to receive the greater applause at their home venue. After all, they are the established, successful franchise. But anyone who thought South East Melbourne Phoenix would be friendless in their inaugural NBL season was proven wrong before the tip-off.

A roar echoed around the arena as one by one the Phoenix players, led by star Mitch Creek, made their way out onto the court. Another cheer followed when a red-hot start saw them take an early 6-2 lead and forced United coach Dean Vickerman to call an early timeout.

Phoenix fans continued to cheer and wave clappers after every basket as their team impressed in a memorable first outing.

By halftime they had opened up a six-point lead. At the end of the third period the margin had increased to nine and an opening night upset was brewing in Melbourne.

"Louder, louder," pleaded the announcer down the stretch, trying to lift the shellshocked United fans. They obliged and were treated to an enthralling final six minutes which featured clutch baskets, incredible defensive stops and, above all, a tense finish.

Nerves were to be expected in the Phoenix's NBL debut, but Creek provided a calming presence. He hit two late triples to help his side to a remarkable three-point win, all the while putting the competition on notice.

"We weren't the most composed team down the stretch, but I thought we played our a---- off," Phoenix coach Simon Mitchell said.

"We are tremendously gritty and I thought that in a short time these guys have been able to establish a real pride in their uniform and a real pride in what we're doing in the southeast.

"Anyone who was thinking about following the [Phoenix], [tonight they saw] what we're about. We're going to fight to the death."

The win in the inaugural Melbourne Throwdown will have done the Phoenix's chances of securing a chunk of the city's market no harm.

Mitchell says that he'd be shocked if his side's performance on Thursday night didn't lead to instant membership sales.

"We use the word 'heartland' a lot and it's probably a marketing ploy, but [southeast Melbourne] is the heartland of Victorian basketball," Mitchell said. "We've got 25 percent of the registered basketballers living in a 15km square area in the southeast. These people know their basketball and they love their basketball.

"Melbourne United has done an unbelieve job in carrying the flag for Victorian basketball, but there's a lot of people that didn't buy in and there's a lot of people that [still see them] as the Tigers. I work in the southeast and I understand they all hate the Tigers.

"There's a huge basketballing group of people out there that are looking for someone to cheer for and we're bringing it for them. I would be very surprised if we don't make an indent to the market."

The win was made more impressive given the Phoenix lost star Tai Wesley to a hamstring injury in the first quarter.

The American had starred with eight points in five and a half minutes before heading to the bench and not returning.

"He was rolling and we were rolling with him," Mitchell said. "He's such a key component of what we've been doing so we had to find another avenue."

Creek added: "You can't replace someone like Tai. He's without a doubt one of the best four-man in the league. He's unguardable. We stayed composed enough to make simple plays and that was across the board."

With 10,300 fans making their way to Melbourne Arena, the game was the highest attended NBL season opener in league history. The courtside announcer summed it up best: "That's why you want two teams here."