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.