The wait for the Mount Gambier Pioneers to return was worth it as both the men and women started the 2022 NBL1 South season in style on Saturday night.
In front of a large and loud crowd at the Icehouse, the Castec Rural men and OneFortyOne women stole the show recording a pair of vital wins over Diamond Valley in just the club’s sixth home game in more than two and a half years.
The dream start to the season will do wonders for both teams, who had to overcome a number of setbacks just to be able to hit the court.
The cards were stacked against the Pioneers men even before game day.
Despite taking many precautions, COVID-19 struck at the worst possible time for the team, with long-standing head coach Richard Hill and experienced duo Tom Daly and Erik Burdon all catching the virus on the eve of the season.
The losses of Daly and Burdon were massive, with the former an inspirational captain and the latter a star from the three-point line.
With Nick Marshall also out of action logging minutes for the Adelaide 36ers, Mount Gambier was missing its three best players and needed some heroes to stand up.
There was little experience left on the Pioneers’ bench which would have made the visiting Eagles sensing an opportunity to soar in and steal the points.
However, Mount Gambier was in no mood to give up its home turf easily and was pumped up from the moment the ball went up.
New, but unlikely starter Jordan Rawls won the first tip off of the season and 20 seconds later he sent the crowd crazy when he swished a three to open proceedings.
Soon the fans lifted the roof off the stadium when another new recruit Michael Harris showed what he was capable of slotting two straight shots from the three-point line.
As a pumped-up Harris roared his way into the first time out, the Pioneers were flying with a 9-2 lead after just 100 seconds of basketball.
The tall Diamond Valley team eventually reconsolidated and cut the deficit down to three points by quarter time as the home side went over the foul limit.
The likes of Joel Capetola, Desmond Owili and Matt Reynolds ensured the Eagles continued their momentum to level the scoreboard two minutes into the second.
But Mount Gambier then turned up the heat with Rawls going on a seven-point streak and Tom Kubank continuing to stun the spectators.
The Pioneers were also making some big plays down the other end of the court with the likes of Kubank, Kane and Tom de Wit all performing some big blocks.
These plays set the tone as the Pioneers made the Eagles pay for their mistakes scoring 14 points to two from turnovers.
The hard work meant Mount Gambier entered the main break with a comfortable 14-point lead.
Despite Kubank and Kyle Tipene continuing to do a power of work, Diamond Valley’s expertise started to have an influence.
Reynolds, Owili and Mark Scherf strung together a few nice plays to bring their team back in the game at the final change.
A pair of three-point jump shots by Reynolds made the Pioneers a bit jittery, but thanks to some timely interventions from Kane de Wit, the hosts managed to maintain their lead.
However, when a Ngor Manyang three was instantly followed by a Owili layup, Diamond Valley was on the brink of a heist with only one point the difference with a minute remaining on the clock.
To the relief of the home crowd, Rawls found an immediate response and a series of Harris free throws iced the game to get 2022 off to a winning start.
With Hill out of action, Pioneers legend Kurt Russell was upgraded from assistant to head coach for the fixture and he said he endured many emotions during the season opener.
“It was a very good start to the year considering we had three of our best players out, so I could not be prouder of the boys,” he said.
“There was no doubt in our mind we still had a team that could compete because we have got such a great program with everyone on the same page despite being shorthanded all preseason.
“It was my first time coaching and we had prepared for it, but did not expect it to be on game one.
“It was a bit nerve-wracking towards the end because Diamond Valley started to hit shots from three at crucial times, but we just kept finding ways to keep our scoreboard ticking.
“We knew we were undersized and had a defensive plan going in and executed it brilliantly forcing them to throw out of bounds.
“I had a lot of nerves because it felt like I was getting ready for a big game myself, but I have learnt so much from Richard and once the game started it was just great with the boys showing who we are.”
Harris was prolific from the paint slotting a match-high 32 points, but it was Kubank, who caught everyone’s imagination with 20 of his own, while young guns Zach Nulty, Harry Mules and Jackson Bowden also enjoyed some invaluable court time on a day when defence proved just as important as offence.
“We really needed our starting five to step up and hats off to Tom Kubank, who played exceptionally well,” Russell said.
“His game has elevated after working his bum off in preseason which has shown because he is doing the little things well and without him we would not have got over the line.
“Michael put points on the board for us and had a good all-round game because it was a gutsy team win with 15- to 16-year-olds getting involved.
“The respect the players showed me made it a very easy job and that just goes to show the program and culture Richard has built.”