Cairns have narrowly avoided a damaging upset loss to the bottom-placed Illawarra Hawks after a tense 89-84 victory that keeps the far north Queensland franchise in the box seat for an automatic playoff spot.
The Taipans were challenged all the way as the upstart Hawks threatened to snap a nine-game losing streak at Cairns Convention Centre on Friday night to put the home side's chances of a top-two finish in serious jeopardy.
After being outscored by 14 points in the opening five minutes of the game, the visitors produced a stunning turnaround to hit the front by the end of the first quarter and repeatedly answered every Taipans challenge to hold a two-point advantage with less than two minutes to play.
But Cairns made a pair of vital defensive stops and kept their cool at the free-throw line to secure their fifth win on the trot and maintain their hold on second spot with a 15-7 record.
Tahjere McCall (24 points, 11 rebounds and four steals) stepped up for the Snakes in the closing stages with a clutch basket to level scores at 82-82 then secured a match-sealing steal from a Hawks defensive rebound to deny Illawarra an opportunity to tie the game with a three-pointer in the dying seconds.
"His capability of being able to play through (foul trouble) and most games we would have said yeah, let it ride but with the game on such a knife's edge balance I knew I needed him more to close it out rather than maintain the momentum that was happening in the third (quarter). He closed it up brilliantly for us," Taipans coach Adam Forde said about McCall, who sat out vital minutes in the third quarter with four fouls.
Cairns looked determined to make the contest a lopsided affair by racing out to an 18-4 lead but a spirited fightback from Illawarra saw the rank outsiders take a 24-23 lead by the end of the first period.
DJ Hogg provided the Taipans with some separation at halftime with a pair of late baskets as the home side took a 45-40 edge into the main break. And after giving up 32 points in the paint through the first half, the Taipans' interior defence lifted in the third stanza to halt Illawarra's dominance under the rim.
But Mangok Mathiang disrupted a series of attacking moves from Cairns with his shot-blocking ability to keep Illawarra in the hunt heading into the final quarter.
Tyler Harvey's 25-point haul and a career-best 16 points from Will Hickey put the Hawks on the brink of an unlikely upset before ultimately falling short to drop to 2-20 for the season.