IT wasn’t supposed to end like this.
Playing on their home court in front of a vocal crowd, the Bendigo Bank Braves were expected to mark captain Chris Hogan’s 300th and Taylor Bell’s 250th matches by winning a third conference title in four seasons.
A SEABL championship match against Mount Gambier awaited.
Instead, it will be Dandenong that gets a shot at redemption after going down in last year’s decider to Albury-Wodonga.
The Rangers were simply too good for Bendigo in an 85-79 east conference final win on Saturday night.
“You set up your season to play a home grand final and we needed to be able to produce,” Braves coach Ben Harvey said.
“We were 5-26 from the three-point line, we outrebounded them (53-37).
“It was definitely a game that was there to be won, in the second quarter we were up by seven.
“It really hurts. It was pretty quiet in the rooms after the game.
“It’s a year that we wanted to win, we felt like we had the team.
“We obviously needed to win the conference final to get to the national final and we have neither now, so it’s gut-wrenching.”
The odds seemed stacked in Bendigo’s favour before tip-off.
The Braves had only lost once at Bendigo Stadium from 15 games in 2013.
Bendigo finished on top of the east conference ladder, eight wins clear of the third-placed Rangers.
And ladder positions were reflected in a 21-18 opening term that the Braves controlled and import Ivan McFarlin dominated.
The big man racked-up nine points and 10 rebounds to quarter time.
But a heavy fall late in the term changed everything.
McFarlin had to be benched and, although he played 32 minutes for 18 points and 23 boards, he couldn’t exert the same influence.
The same could be said of the Braves.
Bendigo’s missed baskets and poor ball-handling saw scores levelled 40-all at the main break.
Perhaps sensing that Bendigo had fired its best shot, Dandenong grew in confidence in the third term.
Tony Lewis (23 points) stepped-up with McFarlin sore and in foul trouble.
Captain Andrew Harms (24 points) scored 10 points for the quarter as the Rangers established a 66-59 advantage at the final change.
The Braves were near enough if good enough.
Braves vice-captain Kevin Probert (15 points, five assists) led a Bendigo fightback with two massive three-pointers.
With the crowd spurring on the home team, Bendigo charged from six points down to only one behind with 25 seconds to play.
Dandenong’s Daequon Montreal (16 points) halted the run with two clutch free-throws.
But it gave Bendigo the ball and a glimmer of hope.
Jazz Ferguson (16 points) popped a long-range attempt, but missed, and the ball came to Tom Garlepp with 11 seconds to play.
The big man needed a three to take the game to overtime, but he was instead called for a travel and the crowd exploded.
Garlepp lost his cool and was ejected from the game.
Montreal was gifted four shots from the charity stripe and sent the Rangers into the championship decider.
Boos rang out at Bendigo Stadium at the final buzzer for the controversial finish but, ultimately, it was the Rangers who deserved victory.
“Whatever you say now means nothing,” Harvey said. “You can blame the world but the reality is we didn’t win our confercence grand final and it hurts.”