The home side were by no means as dominant as they should have been, but experience in the closing stages saw them secure the win and narrowly avoid a sizeable slip-up.
Former Notre Dame captain Scott Martin got the Eagles’ season off the ground with a tip-in, and despite some early perimeter shooting from Durham the home side were never troubled in the opening exchanges.
The first quarter was one of stops and starts – with most of the stops coming on the Newcastle defensive end.
While their offence was a little cagey in the first stanza – missed lay-ups, rusty three-point shooting and travels called on a number of occasions – it was their defence which gave them a 20-17 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Durham had, like Newcastle, overhauled their roster in the summer but their woes from interior shooting and shot clock violations continued, ultimately gifting the Eagles rebounds and turnovers.
The two teams traded baskets in the early exchanges of the second quarter, with player-coach Fab Flournoy animated from the sidelines, directing his men – with most of the attention going to dynamic guard Paul Gause.
Newcastle continued to work hard on the defensive end, rebounding and bullying the Wildcats, and while the visitors were able to make their free throws count, the physical exertion began to tell in the latter stages of the season opener.
The Wildcats’ distance shooting was keeping their heads above water in the first half, and it was desperately needed because they struggled inside the paint all night long.
As the first half began to wane Newcastle began to find some form, creating stop after stop and forcing their opposition in to taking poor shots, which cost them valuable possessions.
A 9-2 Eagles run towards the end of the second half saw Durham head coach Lee Davie call a much-needed time-out.
Newcastle punctuated their first half by racing from 26-26 to go in to the break 45-30.
Malik Cooke was the dominant force in his first two quarters of British basketball and led all scorers with 11 points. The beginning of the third quarter was a step back in terms of quality.
Newcastle still had the edge, but a series of poor possessions allowed Durham to cut the game at one stage to 54-46.
A solid end to the period saw the Eagles go in to the final quarter up 66-54 but four quick Durham baskets without reply allowed the lead to be cut to three with just two minutes played in the fourth.
Durham were everything Newcastle weren’t in the beginning of the last quarter – composed, diligent and careful. The suddenly tight game caused Flournoy to call another time-out and the message was clear for all to see – the Eagles must be better on the glass.
Durham did claw the deficit back to two points, but composure down the stretch from Charles Smith and Darius Defoe saw the Eagles get past a tricky Durham outfit 85-78, who have improved massively since last season. Defoe led the scoring with 22, while Martin and Cooke both had 18.