Title favourites Melbourne United rode the hot hand of Chris Goulding to draw first blood in the NBL grand final series with a tense 73-70 victory over a shorthanded Perth Wildcats on Friday night.
The minor premiers, who finished three games ahead of second-placed Wildcats in the regular season, overcame a gritty late Wildcats comeback amid a raucous RAC Arena to prevail in the series opener.
Jesse Wagstaff missed a chance to send the game into overtime when his three-pointer in the dying seconds rattled out.
It was United's 10th straight game away from home having been on the road for nearly a month due to the COVID-19 situation in Melbourne.
Goulding was spectacular with 23 points, while Jock Landale (17 points and seven rebounds) provided support.
The Wildcats are seeking a hat-trick of titles for the first time in their storied history but have been mostly written off since a season-ending quadriceps injury to three-time MVP Bryce Cotton.
They were dealt further blows when young gun Luke Travers, who had cemented a starting spot since the absence of Cotton, was ruled out due to calf soreness while sharpshooter Clint Steindl exited in the first half with a groin injury.
But the Wildcats were gallant and Todd Blanchfield (27 points) picked up the slack to give them hope of being competitive in the series.
Game two on Sunday will also be played in Perth with the remainder of the best of five series likely to shift to Melbourne.
"We dodged a bullet but a gutsy effort from our team," Goulding told ESPN.
"We'll be better for the run but it's always tough against any Perth team."
Fast starts fuelled United's two victories in Perth late in the regular season and they came out firing with Goulding nailing a three-pointer on the first possession.
But the visitors then struggled against the Wildcats' physicality and hustle, marked by a spectacular tip-dunk from prized recruit Will Magnay.
The slower tempo suited the Wildcats, who flummoxed a cold-shooting United to lead 35-31 at halftime.
United finally found their groove midway through the third quarter with Goulding's deep three-pointer at the buzzer powering his team to a 60-53 advantage.
United's momentum continued in the final period as they stormed to a double-digit lead before Blanchfield single-handedly inspired an audacious comeback.
But United hung on to become the first visiting team to win three games in Perth over a season.
Australian Associated Press