By Andrew Crawford
The Yuanshen crowd breathed a collective sigh of relief after the Sharks held on to overcome a feisty Shanxi Dragons team to move their impressive home record up to 4-1. The score was 92-90 but it shouldn’t have got that close. The Sharks almost threw away a victory but have Mike Harris and Meng Lingyuan to thank for getting them over the finishing line.
The first quarter saw some mesmerizing basketball from the Sharks, who despite missing Liu Wei and Tseng Wen-ting, looked excellent on both sides of the court. Feng Tian was all deft hands, and one assist in particular, where he danced around two Shanxi players before dishing it out to Zhang Zhaoxu to finish off the move, brought their crowd to its feet .
At the other end, Zhang was also keeping watch over the dangerous Charles Gaines with quiet authority. Two booming blocks on the former Qingdao forward were enough to get him pulled him for fellow American, Marcus Williams. A powerful dunk from Ji Xiang capped off an all action performance from the Sharks, who led 29-20 going into the second quarter.
When play resumed, so did the Sharks’ intensity. Meng and Harris were cooling draining big shots from range meaning that Williams had to effectively carry Shanxi, who were lagging behind by an increasingly wide margin. If only to underline the difference between the two teams, with a couple of minutes left before the break, Meng and Feng both hurled themselves across the floor to try to rescue the same deflected pass.
However, Shanghai would take their foot off the gas in the latter stages of the game but it was yet to become obvious in the third quarter. Although Gaines and Wiliams were beginning to cut loose, this passed under the radar as the game became increasingly testy, underlined by a cynical trip by Zhang Xuewen on Ryan Forehan-Kelly as the latter made his way to the rim. The foul sparked a hail of cat calls from the crowd and the referees had to step in as Feng rushed to confront the Shanxi forward, who found himself headed to his bench shortly afterwards.
Whilst the game was getting increasingly ill-tempered, Shanxi’s high scoring overseas duo had discreetly whittled down Shanghai’s lead and midway through the fourth quarter, Shanghai were essentially relying on Meng and Harris to keep them ahead. The two Sharks were ice-cold when the chances came calling but otherwise it was all about Williams and Gaines. Shanghai looked spent and were now missing the stabilizing influence of Forehan Kelly, who had not returned after his earlier altercation with Zhang.
Now, with 60 seconds left, and the Sharks out of fouls, every indiscretion brought Williams to the free throw line with predictable consequences.
The Sharks were teetering on the edge of losing a game they should have wrapped up. Looking up, the crowd would have seen that the scoreboard stood at 92-90 but when their eyes returned to the floor, they will have watched three final plays that were soaked with drama. Indeed, as both the Sharks and the Dragons missed their chance to score amidst several spilt rebounds, the clock stood at seven seconds and the ball was in the hands of Williams. Making a snap decision to go for three and try to win the game, the Yuanshen went quiet as the American’s shot sailed through the air, clipping the backboard and the rim but bounced away and out to safety.
It was the last act of an improbable game and with an injury to Forehan-Kelly in the back of his mind, Coach Panaggio conceded in his press conference that the tight victory was down to his side’s positive start in the first half. Harris made 30 points and 11 rebounds whilst Zhang picked up 15 and 11 rebounds.
Shanghai will hope RFK can recover quickly but Panaggio mentioned a knee contusion when asked about the American’s fitness. Another home victory takes them to 4-7 but with Liu, RFK and Tseng all injured, Shanghai’s bad luck continues even when they win.
Andrew Crawford is a blogger for sharkfinhoops.com, the only English website about the fortunes of the Shanghai Sharks.