Illawarra Hawks have launched the NBL finals series with a gritty 74-72 victory over bogey opponent Perth Wildcats at RAC Arena to put the two-time defending champions on the brink of elimination.
The Hawks trailed for most of the semi-final series opener before overrunning the Wildcats in the final quarter.
A missed three-pointer at the buzzer from Todd Blanchfield sealed just the Hawks' second win in Perth from their last 36 attempts.
The visitors overcame shooting woes from talisman Tyler Harvey (10 points) with vital contributions from Justinian Jessup (17 points) and Justin Simon (16 points and 9 rebounds).
The Wildcats entered their record 35th straight finals appearance without two-time MVP Bryce Cotton after recent season-ending surgery, leaving Blanchfield to play a lone hand on offence with 24 points.
The Hawks, whose sole title was in 2001, have long struggled against the Wildcats triumphing only once in 10 finals series.
Game two of the best of three series shifts to the WIN Entertainment Centre in Wollongong on Saturday.
"We just wanted to play hard and we got the victory here," Simon said.
"We want to keep the same focus for game two."
The Hawks started nervously hitting just one-of-eight from the field and were unable to capitalise on early foul trouble to returning Wildcats defensive specialist Mitch Norton.
Without the irrepressible Cotton, the Wildcats emphasised crisp ball movement which led to open shots and an early 10-point buffer.
An ice-cold Harvey missed his first six field goals and the Hawks struggled to curb sharpshooter Blanchfield as the Wildcats led 39-33 at half-time.
Led by an energetic Simon, the Hawks changed the momentum in the third period to rattle the home side, underlined by a technical foul to flustered Perth coach Trevor Gleeson.
The Wildcats, however, regrouped to edge ahead 56-52 at the final break and continued to put the clamps on the Hawks in a dour last quarter.
But with Cotton on the sidelines, the Wildcats endured a scoring drought and the Hawks took advantage with Jessup hitting a clutch three-pointer to give the visitors the lead late on.
A spectacular tip-back dunk from Simon in the dying stages punctuated the Hawks' comeback and continued their remarkable rejuvenation after finishing with last season's wooden spoon.
Minor premiers Melbourne United open their finals campaign against South East Melbourne Phoenix on Friday in a series that will be played at Qudos Bank Arena in Sydney due to the COVID-19 situation in Melbourne.