Cheshire Phoenix fought tooth and nail at the Northgate Arena on Sunday night in their first leg BBL Trophy semi-final against Glasgow Rocks, 80-74.
Despite on a number of occasions being up by double-digits, the Rocks could not shake off John Lavery’s men, who now take to Glasgow a six-point lead in to the second leg.
Ahead of the game, with an injured Reggie Middleton, Cheshire Phoenix’s roster would need to face up to the question that has been posed all season – what happens when a regular starter is out?
With that in the air, it was a case of both sides feeling one another out in the first quarter. With Glasgow’s height advantage across the court, Donatas Visockis and Victor Moses would need to deliver at either end of the floor.
Initially, defence won out, with neither team finding their range, but Phoenix were able to bring down the offensive boards. A low scoring quarter was to ensue, 10-12 to the visitors.
The following period, it was time for the sharper-shooting Glaswegians to step in to action.
More economical with their shot selection, the Rocks were able to stretch out at one stage to an 11-point lead, but undeterred, Phoenix clawed their way back in to contention and by the half-time whistle were helped with a late run to bring the deficit to just five at 32-37.
Although Victor Moses’ jam early after the break would have led many in the Northgate to believe the turnaround would be sooner than expected, Sterling Davis’ men began to stretch out the lead once more, this time to 12 points, capped off by Fran Urli’s trey midway through the third period.
Once more, the ‘Nix kept plugging away, but late in the quarter, and in the penalty, it gave Rocks to again restore to a healthy lead, 53-64 going in to the final ten minutes of the first leg.
Some may say there is a mysterious force at work in the Northgate at times, but whatever it was, was about to inspire the team, and in particular Dominique Coleman.
Bringing the score back within four points in the first ninety seconds, was the warning shot fired as the Phoenix faithful, in their sixth man role, spurred on their side.
The Rocks attempted to wrestle control back, but with Lavery calling a much-needed time-out, his charges were again to put together a 8-0 run; this time tying the game up 68-68.
Davis rattled in from beyond the arc, only for Coleman, who made 18 of his 33 points in the final period, responded with all guns blazing.
Not only would he fire home from outside, but would make a follow-up three-point play to guide Phoenix on the way to victory.
Despite Gareth Murray’s three on Glasgow’s final play – Devan Bailey gave the home fans something to smile about on leaving the Arena, dialling in from deep to give Cheshire a six-point advantage going in to the second leg 80-74.
Victor Moses, who picked up his third Molten Sports Player of the Month award (the third in four months), again produced a double-double performance with 19 rebounds (9 offensive boards) and 19 points. Visockis also pulled in a double-double of his own with 14 points and 16 rebounds. Leading the scoring charts, for both sides, was Coleman on 33.
Gareth Murray led for Glasgow with 20 points, but Daniel Northern also contributed a double-double of 10 points and 11 rebounds.
Considering Middleton’s absence, Phoenix adjusted well in time – however, John Lavery knows that whatever team he puts out on Friday must focus on securing the win regardless the score.
“We didn’t play particularly well in the first half, so-so in the third quarter, but I’ve got a lot of belief in these guys. I think our fitness showed in the fourth, pushing the ball at every opportunity and, at times, getting some easy looks; got some fouls, went to the line, knocked them down.
“It’s hard when you lose a guy like Reggie, for what he’s contributed this season, but we have a lot of faith in the guys in the squad; whether they come on for one minute or play forty – they do a job. As long as we do that, we’ll be fine.
“We talked before tonight’s game that we won’t treat this as an aggrefgate score. Our focus is that we wanted to win tonight – it didn’t matter if it was by one point or by fifty. That’s exactly our mentality for Friday. We won’t see us as already having a lead – we want to just win.”
Player-coach of the Glasgow Rocks, Sterling Davis, did not feel too downbeat after the result, but knows full well him and his players missed a chance to take the initiative back to the Emirates Arena.
“It’s a six-point game, but that’s easily turned around and we’ll see it as zero. Both sides are in a good position for the second leg, so it’ll be whoever wants it the most – so I’m not too disappointed tonight. We had opportunities though to do better.
“We definitely have something to build off. It’s just a matter of going back and refreshign on what we looked at before and tweak a few things. If we can do that, we’ll be OK.
“The drive in itself comes with getting to any final, regardless of if we are playing on our home court. We’ve had an up-and-down season so far, but I think it would help things for the rest of our season if we can make it there.”