CQUniversity Cairns Taipans Head Coach Aaron Fearne has every reason to be proud of what the Snakes were able to accomplish in the 2016/17 NBL season.
Cairns had a tough opening to start, with three games on the road, along with eight of their first 12 away from the comforts of the Cairns Convention Centre.
They did a good job of staying afloat in that period, winning six games and were close to being significantly better if not for an overtime loss in Perth, dropping a big lead against Sydney and a narrow loss in Melbourne.
The Snakes’ backs were then right up against the wall after losing three of four games in a home stretch, but that only pulled the group together to hit back.
For the first time in Fearne’s tenure as coach, there was a change of import along the way, with Tony Mitchell arriving in between the January 16 home win over the Wildcats and the January 20 overtime defeat in Perth.
The Taipans would end up winning their last three games, six of the last seven, and eight of the last 11 to finish up with a 15-13 record, and completing the regular season to end up in second position.
That gave them home-court advantage in the semi-finals against the Wildcats, but Perth blew an uncharacteristic Cairns side away in Game One at the CCC.
The Snakes made all the necessary adjustments in Game Two in Perth, and did a lot of things right – but just couldn’t get the ball in the hole and that was the season done along with the career of the great Mark Worthington.
Fearne couldn’t be more proud of what Cairns was able to accomplish this year against the odds, especially with big money clubs like Sydney, Melbourne and New Zealand missing the Finals completely.
“I’m really proud of the way we played and of the club to finish the regular season in second spot.
“That’s a massive accomplishment – especially when we were picked to finish dead last. I’m really proud of that. Then we got into the playoffs and met Perth who obviously found their form at the perfect time,” Fearne said.
“They had enough time with Cotton coming into the group when we played them, and unfortunately for us we really didn’t have that same amount of time with Tony from a practice point of view to really get him to fit in fully.
“We weren’t very good Game One and credit to them, they came out and defended us well in both games. Ultimately in the playoffs you have to make shots and we couldn’t. We shot the three-ball really well all season and didn’t shoot it very well in both games.
“We battled extremely hard in that second half in Perth and it’s an awesome environment and place to play out there, but we had a chance down the stretch but just couldn’t get it done and they get to move on.
“I’m really proud of what we were able to accomplish because at the end of the day, a number of teams weren’t in the playoffs who should have been and we were. I’m proud of what we did but we still came up short. Now we go back to the drawing board to find out where we can improve.”
Fearne was happy with the squad he and the Taipans were able to put together particularly with Mitch McCarron, Jarrad Weeks and Nate Jawai as Australians to try and compete with the league’s powerhouses.
“Attracting a quality Australian to your program has always been a struggle for our club since I’ve been here, and I’ve been here since day one,” he said.
“It’s a bit to do with where we live and what we can afford to pay, but bringing Nate back was obviously huge, bringing Mitch McCarron back from overseas and Jarrad Weeks I felt added some really good pieces.
“You try to forecast what you need to be able to compete with them, and what Australian guys we can bring in to improve the program and what our system is like, and will it give us a chance to win enough games and be competitive at both the offensive and defensive end. You need to do all that.”
Looking back on the season overall, Fearne has no question it was one of the most challenging that he’s been part of for a lot of reasons.
That’s why he can’t be more proud of the way they all pulled together to make the Finals and do so in second spot in what was considered perhaps the strongest, and deepest NBL season in history.
“I felt we had put a pretty good team together and we played really well in the pre-season. It was a tough, terrible start with eight of our first 12 on the road and we had three to start the season so we couldn’t have asked for any worse,” Fearne said.
“Then to get to the halfway point and to be 6-7 going into that Christmas break I felt we had done a great job and we had a chance to surge up the ladder with these four home games we had coming up. Then we go out and lose three out of the four of them so that didn’t help obviously.
“We knew that in the month of January and start of February was going to be a huge challenge for us with five doubles in-a-row, and we ended up travelling something like 30,000kms and playing 10 games while practicing three times.
“Throw that in there with an import change and Tony ended up playing more games than practicing, Wortho didn’t practice for the last month of the season because of the shoulder so we had a few things not really going in our favour.
“But the boys were fantastic and stuck with the system and really battled to give ourselves a chance. That last couple of weeks saw six of the eight teams still trying to lock in a playoff spot and we didn’t know if we were in until that last weekend, but we gave ourselves a chance.”
The Taipans then took on a Wildcats team that was entering the Finals as healthy, and in-form as they have been at any point during the season. They dominated Game One in Cairns with Bryce Cotton on fire.
That meant that the job for Cairns was to win in Perth, but given the Snakes wrapped up the semi-finals there two years ago and perhaps should have won both trips during the regular season, it wasn’t as daunting as some might think.
To Fearne and his team’s credit, they did a terrific job lifting their intensity levels, they executed a lot better and they completely blanketed Cotton, and did well limiting Casey Prather.
But Matt Knight and Jesse Wagstaff knocked down open shots, and despite the strong competitive effort, the shots from the Snakes just wouldn’t fall and sometimes it’s as simple as that.
“We didn’t have a lot of impact from Nate. He woke up sick that day and didn’t go to shootaround and ultimately we needed him to be an impactful player for us in the playoffs, and that didn’t happen,” Fearne said.
“Building the team was about having guys around Nate who could shoot the ball well and for the most part during the season we did a good job with that. That made it difficult for teams to dig in on him or double-team him, so that was always the plan around how we built the team.
“We just couldn’t make enough shots and we just needed to make enough in that first half to be around. We made some adjustments defensively and Cotton didn’t have much of an impact on the second game at all, and Casey did early on but not from that point.
“Then they had Jesse stepping up and that’s what good quality playoff teams do. You need people to fulfil their roles and Jesse’s job is to sit out there and knock down open shots. We picked our poison with Matty Knight having to make jump shots as well and credit to him he knocked down enough.
“We did some really good things in that second game defensively and to hold them to 74 gives you a chance, but we just couldn’t score the ball well enough. We’ve always defended really well but don’t have the firepower to get a lot of easy baskets. But that’s what we are faced with and we’ll keep finding ways to improve.”