Cheshire Phoenix were able to hold off a late challenge from Durham Wildcats, who have become somewhat of a bogey side of theirs since their arrival in the BBL, to take a vital 75-68 win and keep up with those in the lower half of the league.
Reggie Middleton needed only seven points to become the first player to break the 200 barrier this season, and duly got matters under way with the first bucket of the night. Trading points, Durham went to work with captain Ralph Bucci extending his team out to a five point lead midway in the first quarter. Bucci was also on hand when Middleton received a technical for a disagreement with an official, sinking both free throws to push out to six, before Middleton hit back to end the quarter 13-17.
Devan Bailey brought the game to within two points before Raymond Evans made was fouled whilst shooting, and converted the freebie. A much needed run of seven points helped the home side regain the lead. Devan Ginty dropped a big three in response, which would be the last time the visitors had the lead in the game, but not for a want of trying. Phoenix ended the half the stronger, as a three-point play from Dominique Coleman set the home side on their way. Mike Allison put down a jam, before Middleton stepped up to the line after being fouled by the former, and in doing so made his 200th and 201st points of the season; the first player in the league to break this marker. A mesmerising reverse alley-oop slam by Victor Moses neatly provided by Reggie Middleton helped finish the half, 38-32.
Kai Williams came out from the changing rooms and put Durham into a spin, bagging seven early points to give Cheshire their biggest lead of the game, 45-34. However, Durham quietly made their way back in to contention; their run of 11 points rounded off by the easiest three-point attempt Bucci was to have all night, tying matters up. It was a case of Lavery’s men finishing the stronger – Moses from the line and Middleton, with seconds to spare grabbing a bucket to make it 53-49.
The final quarter played out for two minutes before a score was on the board, thanks to Odiba Attah, but once it did, the tension grew towards the final buzzer. Moses threw up a hopeful shot whilst being fouled, and thankfully dropped, and made the resulting free throw giving the Phoenix a lead of eight points. Durham again unassumingly chipped at the deficit, with more big threes from Bucci, and before the home crowd knew it, the score stood at 65-65 as Bucci ran the play after stealing the ball from Middleton, going 3-on-1 alongside Ginty and Kirk Crecco, who made the basket.
Middleton missed two from the line, but something that Phoenix have lacked at times this year came together; the ability to see a game through to the end. Five straight points seemed to give the home side breathing space, but Ginty from deep meant a nerve-racking end was in store. Durham’s foul count began to hurt them, but as the pressure built, the free throws started to miss, until Alan Duppa hit his second attempt with 16 seconds to go and give a 73-68 lead. However, a bad turnover from Ginty allowed “Mr. Points” Middleton to finish off proceedings with a last gasp bucket to end 75-68.
John Lavery, head coach of the Phoenix knew how important the win in this head-to-head could be, but feels they need to reproduce that no matter who they play: “Any win is a good win, what the guys put out there, we deserved the win and were the better team for 40 minutes. Obviously we need to work on stuff, but they are pleased to get the win.”
The return of Coleman meant he wasn’t reliant upon five players for 40 minutes straight, unlike seven days ago and was pleased with how he coped on court: “We were very short last week, but it’s good to get him back. It’s one of those, you can either go without him and give him a rest, see what happens, or he puts his body on the line – which he did – and we got the win.”
After a brilliant victory over Glasgow Rocks on Saturday night, Wildcats’ head coach Lee Davie was disappointed at how his team couldn’t replicate the same at the Northgate: “We didn’t shoot the ball particular well tonight, didn’t get off to the best of starts; defensively I think we were pretty solid to keep them under 75 points. We beat them on the offensive boards, but had a few too many turnovers in the end. The game was in our hands to win, but we didn’t hold on to come through.”