It was a total mismatch when it came to their names, but on the floor Sabay Salty Crabs proved mightier than the Phnon Penh Dragons.
In a championship game full of dizzying possessions at the Beeline Arena on Saturday, the Crabs had the better of the exchanges and swept the Dragons aside 72-64 to emerge worthy winners of the inaugural Cambodia Basketball Challenge.
Loud music blared as the buzzer sounded the Dragons’ death knell. No chest bumps or fist pumps – the celebration was passionate but mild with the Crabs adoring the winning medals around their necks.
The Dragons were understandably crestfallen.
Against all odds and expectations, the Dragons had splendidly recovered from a slow start to the season to get to within one match of the title, only to see the Crabs snatch it away.
“Fifteen men, one team, one goal. We did it, and it's the best feeling to ever have. Call us what you want, but don't forget to call us champions,” Crabs skipper Kenneth Kim emotionally declared in an interview with the Post yesterday.
Little did anyone know that he had played an impeccable role in defence despite nursing a fractured finger on his right hand and a sprained left rotator cuff.
The captain’s own predicament highlighted the many other injury concerns that surrounded the team going into this vital game.
In a way the small but noisy crowd brazenly rooted for the Dragons. “The non-stop chants of ‘Dragons, fight, fight’ was motivating for us to silence the crowd,” added Kim.
Dragons’ coach Michael Dibbern, meanwhile, was gracious in defeat.
“We did our best. I am disappointed we didn't take the title but at the same time I am happy the team made it this far. Now there is plenty to look forward to,” he said.
Constantly probing and always on the lookout for a sly killer pass, the Crabs led in every quarter, though the Dragons managed to stay within sight.
There were transient phases of Dragons brilliance in counter play, both in the third and fourth quarters, that threatened to take the finish to the wire.
But the Crabs were in no mood to relent. Every time the Dragons got closer on the back of high roller Mark Nabong’s defence splitting drive-ins, the Crabs would come through with a bucket of their own.
A big surprise was in store for the Dragons when the Crabs shelved their usual 2-3 zone defence to a box-and-one style, with four manning the zone and one typically marking the best rival offensive player.
Three Crabs defenders – Kenneth Kim, Eng Eavhai and Im Pronita – took turns to patrol Dragons lead player Nabong, restricting him to just six points in the game, a mighty blow for the Dragons.
With Nabong effectively shackled it was left to Kelvin Chan to salvage the Dragons' pride. But in the end it was too much of a load for one player to carry.
“We felt that if we take Nabong out of the equation and force their supporting players to step up, we'd be able to put them away early,” said captain Kim.
The Crabs closed out the first quarter with a comfortable 20-6 lead. They never looked back, staving off in the end an exciting counter offensive by the Dragons that brought the deficit to seven at one stage.
But a deep corner three-pointer by Im Pronita signaled the end for the Dragons.
Sean Looney's strong presence under the rim ensured some nice rebound pick-ups at one end and a few nice lay-ups at the other. He topped the score-list with 20 points.
The ever-consistent Kim Vengnguon did his part with 16 points, with Im Pronita stacking up a triple of three-pointers.
Meanwhile, Kelvin Chan, who has been doing consistently well for the Dragons, top-scored with 21 points.
In the run-up to the championship fight, Raid-Alaxan FR, well paced by Aimar Sabayo's 27 points, led all the way to post a 70-61 win over CCPL Heat in the third place playoff.
To contact the reporter on this story: H S Manjunath at [email protected]