The prospects of Newcastle Eagles reaching a third successive BBL Play-off final and completing a silverware double this season are hanging tantalisingly in the balance after they slipped to a disappointing loss at Leicester Riders last night.
In a repeat of last season’s showpiece game at Wembley Arena when Leicester came out firmly on top, the Riders racked up a double-digit advantage in the first leg of this year’s semi-final as they planted one foot in the final.
Shortly before tip-off, Fab Flournoy had penned another chapter in his unrivalled sporting history as a player-coach when it was announced that he had been voted the BBL Coach of the Year for the fifth time in his illustrious career.
The New Yorker drew level with renowned play-caller Kevin Cadle, who is the only other five-time winner of the award, and Eagles managing director Paul Blake paid tribute to Flournoy for doing so.
He declared: “To have tied with a coaching legend like Cadle and to do so with all the extra pressure and responsibilities of being a player-coach is astonishing and really special.”
However, as wonderful as Flournoy’s achievement is, both Blake and Flournoy himself will know he must now produce one of his greatest ever results if he is to extend his team’s season beyond Sunday’s second leg and keep his capital appointment on May 11.
Although, as has always been the case with this genuine British basketball colossus, writing Flournoy off is never an option and he will certainly thrive on the challenge of trying to beat a class side like Riders by the 12 points required to progress.
It was a combination of poor shooting percentages and significant foul trouble for the in-form duo of Darius Defoe and recent BBL Team of the Year member Malik Cooke which proved a toxic combination for the visitors, and yet they did still give themselves an unlikely lifeline.
Down by as many as 22 points, the wheels looked to have come crashing off for Flournoy and his team, but a late rally which halved the deficit now gives them more than a glimmer of hope for the return game at Sport Central.
The away side had actually started brightly, capitalising on the absence of opposing playmaker Ant Downing as they rushed into a handy 27-20 lead to get on to the front foot.
However, by half-time the hosts were in the ascendancy, and heading into the last quarter had managed, rather ominously, to build a decent advantage at 68-60, which they would subsequently stretch extensively.
Struggling against some effective Leicester defence and suffering from an uncharacteristically ragged spell, it looked like a mountain to climb as the standout Jay Couisnard put Riders 86-64 ahead with less than five minutes remaining.
But much to the frustration of the home side and to the relief of Flournoy and Co, the pendulum swung back towards Tyneside when, led by the excellent Paul Gause, the Eagles closed the game with a 15-4 run and one which could yet prove to be their saviour.
Leicester: Couisnard 25, Sullivan 17, Washington 14.
Newcastle: Gause 22, Martin 15, Cooke 11.