By Harry Hodge
Down by one with under 20 seconds left in the game. Vietnamese national team member To Quang Trung heads to the free throw line.
Regional starter Moses Morgan fouled out with just over three minutes left in the game. Former UMass star Maxie Esho also bowed out, on a questionable call that brought down a shower of boos.
Swish. The game is tied 103-103. Overtime is next.
Vietnamese-American star Horace Nguyen comes up big. Local player Le Ngoc Tu is pressed into action as well. And the Saigon Heat do the unthinkable, using a makeshift, undersized lineup to down the ASEAN Basketball League (ABL) champions 118-115 in a watershed moment for basketball in this country.
The Heat saw three players foul out, while the visiting Hong Kong Eastern Long Lions lost one of their own. Refereeing is tough, but calling more than 50 fouls between the two teams is sure to raise eyebrows throughout the region. Fighting through a stout Hong Kong lineup time and again was Saigon’s Akeem Scott, who played lights out basketball with 38 points and six steals. Esho had 27 points, while Michael Williams had 23 and Moses Morgan chipped in an impressive 17, after going scoreless in the first half.
“I just went out there and did my job,” said Nguyen, in his finest game in a Heat uniform. He played the ultimate utility man, with more than 28 minutes of tough defending, mostly in foul trouble. He also hit a crucial three-pointer in overtime and was often matched up against much larger opponents, including Hong Kong’s regional star Christian Strandhardinger in the extra frame.
“The Vietnamese players came up big, it was a total team win,” he said.
Strandhardinger was a force for Hong Kong, with 31 points and 18 rebounds. League stalwart Marcus Elliott had a double-double as well, with 29 points and 10 rebounds.
Scott had been a one-man show in the Heat’s three-game losing streak, with shooting running cold for players like Michael Williams and David Arnold. But Arnold turned in a classic performance in overtime, with the longest-serving player in team history turning in key rebounds and some clutch shooting of his own.
“The (domestic players) were great,” Arnold said amidst a throng of well-wishers after the game. “We fouled out three guys.
“We were playing desperate. Sometimes when you play desperate, you play better.”
The crucial home win will be the last one for the month, as the Heat reach the midseason mark at 5-5, the first time at .500 at this point in any season the team has played. Canadian coach Kyle Julius has seen plenty of ups and downs in his first season with the team, often with fans calling for more involvement from local players.
For many Vietnamese fans, this will provide some vindication. With the game on the line, names like Nguyen, Le and To were on the floor against the best players in Southeast Asia. Emerging victorious was icing on the cake, sending fans home with a Tet gift a couple of weeks early.