Wolves leave the Lions’ den in the lead

Worcester Wolves will be delighted to have come away from the first half of a challenging quarter-final playoff tie against London Lions with a 92-78 advantage to take into the return leg at the University of Worcester Arena this Sunday.

In Friday’s first leg, at London’s Copper Box Arena, the Wolves dominated early, roaring into a 35-14 first quarter lead, only to see the gap closed right back to 66-63 by late in the third quarter of the contest. In the final period Wolves were once more able to put their foot on the gas, re-instating a healthy cushion.

On Worcester’s first possession of the evening a long-distance attempt from Will Creekmore went awry, but Kalil Irving was quick to grab the rebound, allowing Alex Owumi to succeed with a triple. Stefan Djukic notched Wolves’ next basket, setting off on an impressive run of first-quarter scoring. By six minutes played he had converted a further four times, aiding his side to surge ahead at 21-6, prompting an urgent Lions time out.

As the initial quarter wound down, Djukic had already accumulated 13 points.  When Jamal Williams rose from the bench to contribute five swift points, it looked as if a rout could be on the cards.

However, Lions’ also had a one-quarter-wonder of their own, who then came to the fore, British guard Perry Lawson. In the opening four minutes of the second period, Lawson tallied eight points while Worcester were held to just half that total across their whole team. By half-time the visitor’s lead had been pegged back to 49-39.

Just as Lawson had stepped up before the break, so did his team mate Joseph Ikhinmwin after the interval.  Seven points from Ikhinmwin helped keep his side in touch at 56-46, and a basket from veteran forward Julius Joseph finally brought the deficit into single figures. Entering the last two minutes off the third period a Joseph three-pointer brought matters to 66-63, before a burst of scoring from Wolves’ point guard Zaire Taylor restored calm at 75-66.

Neither side was able to significantly affect the gap between the teams until the night’s final couple of minutes. At a minute and a half left the score stood at 88-78. Taylor sank two free throws, and on the next London possession intercepted an errant pass. Setting off towards the hoop he was fouled by his trailing opponent Chez Marks to thereby gain another trip to the free throw line, where he was able to widen the Worcester lead to 92-78.

Coach Paul James commented afterwards: “It was a good win, though I think we made things harder than we should have done. Even when they came back at us, I always felt we were in control.”

Looking ahead to Sunday’s home leg at the University of Worcester Arena, James added: “A 14-point lead is not insurmountable. We will need to stay on our game and finish the job.”

Taylor led the Worcester scoring with 22 points, followed by Owumi and Creekmore with 16 and 14 points respectively. Rod Brown top-scored for London with 23 points.

 

Riders take quarter-final advantage but Phoenix stay positive

Leicester Riders began their quest to retain the BBL Playoff crown off to a quietly confident start on Friday at the Northgate Arena, securing a 76-88 lead heading into Sunday’s second leg at Loughborough University against Cheshire Phoenix.

A determined first quarter display, and a rampant Rashad Hassan, helped the visitors take charge in Chester, but the ‘Nix were able to hang in for the remainder of the game and have forty minutes left in which to eat in to the 12-point deficit.

The battle between the fourth and fifth placed sides from the Championship got off to a flying start, but Rob Paternostro’s men had the edge with the power at which they possessed in driving inside.

Devan Bailey returned from injury, but one cause of concern was the out-of-sorts Victor Moses, who came off at the end of the first quarter and was later taken to hospital as a precautionary measure after feeling ill whilst on court. It is believed though he will still play a part in Sunday’s second leg.

Riders, who whitewashed Cheshire in the Championship campaign, raced to a game-high lead of 22 midway through the second period thanks to a big three from Harrison Gamble, but the home side knew they had to make in roads before the half-time break came.

After a later time-out called by Paternostro, Phoenix made the best of it, and ended the half 40-53 levelling the quarter score in fine fashion with this buzzer-beater from Reggie Middleton.

This proved to be the catalyst for a comeback on the Northgate floor, and the rest of the ‘Nix side began to find aim after the break going on a 13-3 with a Dominique Coleman triple on the way to 55-58.

However, it was to be as close as Cheshire would come to turning things around as the Riders regrouped and made a 9-0 burst, seven from Anthony Downing, to push them back in to a double-digit lead.

Eventually, Leicester took a 58-72 lead into the final ten minutes, although the fight in the Phoenix remained, knowing every point in these two legs matters, and ended the game with a decent spell to cut the gap to just twelve points in a tie that could have gone either way had the momentum stayed with one side.

Hassan lead all scorers with 26 points on the night, with the Riders’ next top scorer being Jay Couisnard on 21. Both also claimed double-doubles with ten and 12 rebounds respectively.

For Cheshire, Reggie Middleton shone brightest with 25 points, but Donatas Visockis left it all out on court with 16 points and 17 rebounds.

Speaking after his side’s first leg win, head coach of the Leicester Riders, Rob Paternostro, was happy with how his side performed at both ends of the court: “I thought my guys did well today. We played good on offense, but defense we did really well too. We’ve been in a few of these before and we understand completely that it’s an eighty minute game and I said to the guys in the locker room at half-time ‘They’re going to make a run back’ so we need to just keep going.

This team [Cheshire Phoenix] is a dangerous team; the crazier the game gets, the better it gets for them. We have to go for the whole forty minutes on Sunday, just like we knew we’d have to go for the whole eighty minutes in total. They have players were you know that they are just never out of the game.

“Our key was to not get hung up on the score. Sometimes in these first legs you can get really hung up on the score, even at the end saying ‘Oh I wish we won by more’ but we did a good job,” Paternostro went on to say.

Now Leicester return with home court advantage and Paternostro is relishing that prospect to make it in to the semi-finals: “Our home crowd in the playoffs has been phenomenal over the last few years so we’re now really looking forward to Sunday.”

Coach Lavery was disappointed with how his Phoenix side began the game, but is no doubt that those same players can flip the result on its head come the final buzzer on Sunday: “I think they won tonight in the first quarter, but we came out slow and sluggish. We went thirty minutes as well without Vic [Moses] – it’s only half-time and if we get a couple of quick buckets in a row, we could be looking at a 0-0 game and everything to play for again.

“We have to play hard for another forty minutes. We didn’t shoot the ball well, we had some good looks but we just didn’t knock them down. We lost the boards, had nine turnovers; but heir efficiency was something else. It was good to have a full working unit back with Devan [Bailey], but obviously that didn’t last for long losing Vic. We’ll regroup, have a light practice Saturday, and we’ll go Sunday.

Second half turnaround saves Nix from a Knight-mare

Cheshire Phoenix secured fifth place in the BBL Championship with a 97-78 victory over the Birmingham Knights at the Northgate Arena on Sunday night.

They now will face Leicester Riders in the quarter-finals of the playoffs, after Sheffield Sharks’ magnificent comeback against Glasgow Rocks which meant the Sharks would either second or third depending upon further results.

The Knights had nothing to lose and came out fighting after a disappointing loss to the newly elected BBL Champions, Newcastle Eagles, on Saturday night.

Paul Douglas’ side, without star guard Brent Benson, stormed to an early 18-4 lead, as the ‘Nix struggled to get in to gear.

Shots started to drop and the gap began to close for Cheshire but there was still somewhat of a lackadaisical approach to the game with errors dotted throughout the first period, as Martyn Gayle helped to establish a seven-point lead, 18-25 at the end of the quarter.

In the second, John Lavery’s men were quickly under pressure again, through poor shot selection, facing up to the intensity of the Knights and also the foul count stacking up against them (highlighted by a technical for Middleton) to putting Nix in the penalty midway through the stanza.

Luckily for Cheshire, it was not to be Knights’ night from the line, and despite the chance to construct a healthy lead, it was the home side who finished the half the better, cutting Birmingham’s lead to just one point, 43-44, at the break.

Phoenix picked up right from where they left off, initially trading baskets, they began to build a lead that continued to increase as the game wore on. A 14-4 run from Cheshire in the latter part of the third put them in complete command leading to a 71-58 lead going in to the last period.

Lavery’s side turned up the heat on Knights as their heads dropped, and produced a game-high lead of 26 points thanks to Dominique Coleman, allowing some court time for Sam Lavery and Danny Miller, as Cheshire played the rest of the game out on the way to securing the victory and fifth place in the BBL Championship.

Cheshire’s Coleman led all scorers on 27 points, with six rebounds, as Victor Moses bagged another double-double of 24 points and 12 rebounds.

For the Knights, former Mersey Tiger Josh Lockett, who also attended Georgestown with Moses, was their stand out performer with a double-double of 11 points and ten rebounds, as six of Birmingham’s players made double-digits in scoring, Emile Hopkins leading them with 14 points.

Newcastle Eagles win BBL Championship

The Esh Group Eagles Newcastle successfully recaptured the BBL Championship title on Sunday afternoon after an emphatic victory in their last game of the regular season over Surrey United 106-58.

It is their sixth BBL Championship title in nine seasons, and their 18th title in their last ten.

Worcester Wolves, who have three more fixtures to play, can still finish with the same record as the Eagles, but having lost out on the head-to-head series, means they needed Newcastle to slip up over this weekend in order to remain in with a chance.

After overcoming Birmingham Knights on Saturday night 87-71, they needed just the one final victory to lift the crown.

It was a favourable final weekend though, as facing the eleventh-placed United, the Eagles stormed to a 55-24 lead at half-time, at Surrey Sports Park. It was more of the same in the third period, before hitting triple-digits midway through the final quarter.

As the clock ticked down, those who had followed the Eagles on a winning-weekend road trip were in fine voice, and eventually the Eagles were able to celebrate the win and the Championship closing out comfortably 106-58.

The Eagles now go in to the upcoming playoffs with that all-important number one seeding, but it still remains to be seen who they will face in the quarter-finals with a number of teams still in the hunt before the regular season draws to a close next Sunday.

Douglas confident progressive Knights can still win

Last night saw Paul Douglas’ Birmingham Knights produce a hard fought effort at home against the Newcastle Eagles – not enough to pick up a first win, but plenty to suggest there is more to come in future seasons.

Tying the game at half-time, it was safe to say that they, alongside Surrey United, have made a progressive improvement from the first tip back on Saturday 28th September.

Mersey Tigers, last season, had the unenviable accolade of going 0-35 – the first winless season ever in the history of the BBL, but now the Knights are on the verge of joining them in that club.

A former Mersey Tiger in Josh Lockett was a welcome addition, but despite the chance to pick up a win against Surrey United in the series between them, they failed to do so – although Douglas’ men went awfully close to changing that with a slender four-point defeat against the London Lions back at the start of March.

With the progress during this latter part of the season, head coach of the league’s newest side feels there’s a definite distinction between his Knights and the Tigers, when speaking with him shortly after some his players turned out for last month’s England Select side at the BBL Trophy Final in Glasgow.

“I never saw the [Mersey] Tigers play last year, but I think the difference is that we’ve got players who can score, and with track records; I must admit I didn’t recognise many of the names from the Tigers last year, but we have players who people recognise,” Douglas began by saying.

One other element he believes is key in comparing, is the strength of this year’s teams: “The difference is the league is far more competitive than it was last year, it’s tough, but the one thing we have is a lot of rookies and it goes to prove that with so many rookies, it’s a tough league to be in.”

He admitted though, that perhaps a lack of league experience has been, at times, a disadvantage, but knows the players he has had at disposal can use that to progress further: “We need to support those players coming through with some quality players and some veterans of the league as well, which is what we’ve lacked this year, but it is what it is. At the same time, we have a year’s worth of players with BBL experience and they can pass it on to those who may come in next year.

“It’s always been our aim to build and make some additions, and we might still lose some games, but this year, the guys have learnt a lot from it.”

Now his side have just two games left in which to prevent history repeating itself, tonight against Cheshire Phoenix, and a final home game against Durham Wildcats next Saturday – the question is, does Douglas feel they can still do it?

“I hope so, we can definitely do it, so long as the guys work really hard and execute what we’ve done in training, a win is still there.”