The Dakota Wizards had never lost the decisive game of a playoff series on their homecourt, but there were bad omens aplenty for the Wizards in the early stages of Thursday's Game 5 of the CBA Western Conference finals.
There was the slow pace of the first quarter - the lowest-scoring period of the series - when Dakota's main goal was to push the ball. There was Bryant Notree, Dakota's best player in the postseason, severely turning his right ankle midway through the second quarter. And there was Maurice Baker, just back from the NBA, looking lost trying to find a niche with his former team.
But there wasn't much foreshadowing for what finally took the Wizards down. While Dakota was focusing on the Skyforce "bigs" - Corsley Edwards and Jerome Beasley - the Wizards got chopped down by the smallest player of all.
The Wizards had neutralized the Skyforce's David Bailey for the better part of three games. But the slippery point guard erupted for 18 points in the second half, enough for Sioux Falls to notch a 102-97 and win the best-of-5 series 3-2.
"Tonight they were just collapsing (in a zone)," Bailey said. "… I just took it upon myself to get something going."
Bailey did just that with back-to-back hoops in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter. With Sioux Falls up 96-93, Bailey, who finished with a team-high 22 points, penetrated the lane and swished a jumper with 2:19 to go. He followed that up with double-pumper as the shot clock expired, making it a seven-point game with just 1:23 to play.
"He got hot," Wizards coach Casey Owens said. "He made some incredibly tough layups using his quickness and small stature. He finished on some big buckets."
Wayne Turner made a layup then two free throws to return the margin to three points with 31.7 seconds left. Bailey then missed a shot, but DeSean Hadley (21 points, 12 rebounds) came up with the big offensive rebound, and David Jackson finished off the Wizards with a pair of free throws.
"When we were trying to make a comeback, our zone really bothered them, but we weren't able to rebound out of it," Owens said. "We gave them a couple of key offensive rebounds."
For the most part, the Wizards held their own on the glass, thanks to another yeoman effort by Alex Sanders. After posting season-highs in points and rebounds in Game 4, Sanders topped them with 30 points and 23 boards in Game 5.
"I don't think he could play any tougher," Owens said.
But it wasn't enough, because the Skyforce was able to do the three things coach Dave Joerger wanted his team to focus on.
"The keys to the series for us were transition defense, limit easy buckets and limit second-chance points," Joerger said. "We did a major step forward compared to what we have been doing against them in transition defense. They didn't get as much easy stuff in post. And even when we went small, we rebounded as a team."
Sioux Falls kept the tempo slow in the first quarter by doing what they did early in each game, going inside to Beasley, who finished with 12 points and 14 rebounds.
While neither team had a great shooting night, the Wizards went 7-for-21 in the first quarter and trailed 21-20 after one period.
"It was just one of those games when shots weren't going down," said Melvin Sanders, who had 17 points on 6-for-18 shooting. "That's basketball. There's nights like that."
The Wizards snapped out of it long enough to gain the lead late in the second quarter, and were up 52-48 at the half.
But there had to be concern when Notree rolled his ankle with 5:09 left in the period and had to be helped off. Notree returned just a couple of minutes later and played pretty well with 17 points and four assists. But he was hobbling noticeably in the second half and couldn't use his deadly penetration skills as often.
"It bothered me, but what can you do?" Notree said.
Sioux Falls regained the lead in the third quarter, expanding their advantage to 79-68 late in the period, the biggest cushion either team would enjoy.
The Wizards made their most successful push midway through the fourth, taking the lead (89-88) briefly on a transition bucket by Notree. Edwards and Melvin Sanders traded slams, but that was the last time the Wizards would lead.
"It was important that we answered them right away," said DeSean Hadley, who had 21 points and 12 rebounds for the Skyforce.
Edwards (19 points, 15 rebounds) made it 92-91 on a layup with 5:04 to play. David Jackson followed it up with a jumper and Edwards made a hook shot, and the Skyforce never relinquished the lead.
"I thought we settled for jump shots a little too much when our trademark is to attack the rim," Owens said. "That ended up biting us in the end."
The loss put an end to Dakota's quest to win a third CBA title in four seasons, a dream that still lives for Joerger. But after vanquishing his former team, he wasn't about to gloat.
"It means we're going to the championship," he said.
Melvin Sanders wished his former coach well in the finals against Rockford. "I hate that it wasn't us, but it's nice to see him make it," he said.
* NOTES: After the game, Joerger pulled out notes from his back pocket that his dad, a former coach, had passed to him at halftime about how to beat Dakota's zone. … Baker finished just 1-for-7 with three turnovers in 15 minutes. "He got frustrated by a few non-calls," Owens said. "… You can't have it every single night." … Joerger was effusive in his praise of Notree. "I think that's probably the best series, performance-wise I've seen - start to finish - from one guy. He was amazing. He is one of the toughest guys. … Had they won, he would have obviously been the MVP."
Sioux Falls 21 27 31 23 - 102
Wizards 20 32 20 25 - 97
SIOUX FALLS (102): Corsley Edwards 9-17 1-2 19, Jerome Beasley 4-12 4-4 12, David Bailey 10-21 2-2 22, DeSean Hadley 7-22 5-5 21, David Jackson 6-18 4-4 16, Rich Melzer 1-4 0-0 2, Brandon Williams 2-5 2-4 6, Juaquin Hawkins 2-3 0-0 4. Totals 41-102 18-21 102.
WIZARDS (97): Bobby Lazor 3-10 2-2 8, Alex Sanders 12-21 6-7 30, Wayne Turner 6-11 4-6 16, Melvin Sanders 6-18 0-0 17, Bryant Notree 7-17 3-4 17, Maurice Baker 1-7 1-2 3, Jeff Graves 1-2 0-0 2, Sean Lampley 2-5 0-0 4. Totals 38-91 16-21 97.
3-pointers: Sioux Falls 2-17 (Hadley 2-7, Jackson 0-5, Bailey 0-3, Melzer 0-1, Williams 0-1). Wizards 5-18 (M. Sanders 5-11, Lazor 0-5, Notree 0-2). Rebounds: Sioux Falls 60 (Edwards 15, Beasley 14). Wizards 60 (A. Sanders 23). Assists: Sioux Falls 17 (Hadley 6). Wizards 24 (Turner 6). Turnovers: Sioux Falls 8 (Beasley 3). Wizards 16 (Turner 4). Steals: Sioux Falls 11 (Hawkins 3). Wizards 3 (M. Sanders 2). Blocks: Sioux Falls 2 (Edwards 1, Hadley 1). Wizards 4 (Lampley 1, Graves 1, Lazor 1, A. Sanders 1). Total fouls: Sioux Falls 21. Wizards 21.
Series: Sioux Falls wins, 3-2