Play until the final buzzer or risk heartbreak

For sections of the NBL23 season, the debate raged over gunning for percentage or 'respecting' the opposition. In the final two games of the regular season, the evidence provided suggests that there is only one appropriate course of action if your intention is to avoid heartbreak in the final round.

In the first game of a crucial Sunday afternoon of hoops, United guard Rayjon Tucker launched a three from well beyond the arc as the final buzzer sounded, hitting nothing but net to extend the final winning margin for Melbourne to 10 points over Adelaide.

The result left the Perth Wildcats needing a win by 11 points or more over the Sydney Kings to end United's season and advance to the Play-In Tournament.

Approximately two hours later, Sydney sharpshooter Dejan Vasiljevic launched a triple from the left corner in the final seconds that would have reduced the deficit to nine against the Perth Wildcats. If he knocked it down, the previously mentioned buzzer beating triple from Tucker would have elevated United to the Play-In Tournament. He missed and the Wildcats advanced.

United head coach Dean Vickerman was waiting to learn his team's fate at his postgame press conference but was steadfast in his support of the percentage system.

"I'm happy to talk to every other coach in the league and say, 'hey, this is what we're going to do in our league'," Vickerman said.

"I think if there is a general understanding in our league that we're going to shoot that ball at the end and everyone is into it, it's just got to be a discussion we have in our coaches meeting at the start of the year. If everyone is accepting of it, I'm all for it.

"If we're going to have this continual top six, I'm sure it's going to keep happening. With the success of this year and how much these games count for everything, I think that's what you want as a league, you want these games that matter. Percentage matters with how you get to the finals so I'm happy to have that conversation."

Despite the drama unfolding in Perth, Vickerman said he would not be watching the game, instead picking his family up from the airport after a trip to New Zealand. Tucker agreed, though he did concede the tight nature of the standings had his full attention in the closing weeks of the season.

"The last couple weeks I've been dialled in. I don't think I've watched this much basketball ever," he said. "Today, I think I'm like coach, I don't even want to watch, I just want to let the chips fall where they may and hopefully, they go our way. We'll figure it out from there."

In Perth, Wildcats head coach John Rillie was combative in the winners' circle, pleading ignorance in response to questions regarding the Wildcats fighting to live another day.

"I'm gonna say our bandwagon will be pretty full right now," Rillie said. "When we were 5-7, lost five in a row, there was only a room full of guys that believed. That's what I'm most proud of about this team and it came right down to the wire. We made it, so let's go and win it."

Despite eclipsing the required winning margin by just one point, Rillie denied the team was aware of task at hand.

"We never talked about it at all. We play to win and if we play the right way, good shit will happen for us. We did not talk about the point spread at all. It did not ever come out of my mouth," he declared.

Pressed further, he was short and sharp.

"Did it work? Okay, let's move on."

"It's my job to control the game. They don't need to know the scenario, but I can help them get through it with the use of timeouts, the type of defence we play, hopefully I'll make a few right plays for the offence. There was no need for them to worry about that."

It's hard, if not impossible to believe the Wildcats weren't aware of the margin required to advance, but in the unlikely scenario they weren't, every single one of the sold-out crowd in attendance understood the assignment, creating a tension filled crescendo to the season.

Adding to the post-mortem drama was a Chris Goulding heave at the half time buzzer in Melbourne that hit nothing but net. The problem was, the ball was still touching Goulding's fingertips as the lights went red to end the period. If the ball was released half a second earlier, it would be Melbourne fighting to live another day. Talk about sliding doors.

The results of a chaotic Sunday across the country leaves Melbourne to head on vacation and Perth with a Thursday night meeting with South East Melbourne. Heartbreak for one camp, jubilation for the other.

"I'm going to enjoy this moment," Rillie said. "When I took this job, I could feel there was a certain cloud in the air because of what happened last year. So, for these guys to stick with it, persevere through different opportunities. It made it a bit of a Cinderella story with the way it all unfolded tonight. They can go an enjoy that, we'll be ready for South East on Thursday."

United fans might feel hard done by. Wildcats' fans will feel relief. Meanwhile, the NBL will be thrilled with the results of the first lead into a Play-In Tournament in league history.

One thing is for certain, though. No unbiased viewer could leave this wild Sunday with anything but praise and support for the percentage system. Playing until the final buzzer matters.

The way it should be.