Newcastle Eagles placed one hand firmly around the BBL Championship title after they edged fellow contenders Sheffield Sharks at Sport Central last night.
Both sides entered the game with the knowledge that whoever left the court as victors took the all-important gamebreaker, should the league be tied at the end of the season.
The pre-game billing labelled the clash on Tyneside as the potential title decider, and for Newcastle fans they will feel their side now have the trophy, if not in their back pocket, perhaps very close by.
The win does not secure any silverware as of yet, but with just two games left against the bottom two sides in the league – including a trip to the winless Birmingham Knights – it is definitely theirs to lose.
Unsurprisingly the game got off to a nervy start – it took almost two-and-a-half minutes of action before the highly-charged Eagles crowd got to see their first basket, and it came courtesy of a Charles Smith three-pointer.
After the start which yielded little return, both sides settled in to the contest which favoured the home team.
A series of blocks on the defensive end led to some sharp shooting on the other, as they hit four of their opening six shots from beyond the arc in the opening six minutes.
It was Sheffield who called the first timeout of the game as they trailed 25-14 with just over 90 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
The teams then traded baskets in the final seconds to see the home side take a deserved lead into the second period, 27-18.
The telling statistic of the opening exchanges was the block count – the Eagles dominated with five to Sheffield’s zero.
Newcastle continued to apply pressure while defending the basket, but Sheffield, despite still shooting only 35 per cent from the floor, managed to hang around and create problems for the Championship leaders, who themselves were only making 44 per cent of their own shots.
A double-digit half-time lead looked routine for the home side, before a series of sloppy possessions allowed the Sharks to go on a 9-0 run, including a three-pointer on the buzzer to end the quarter tied at 41-41.
The first half statistics would bely a game that should have been Newcastle’s to dominate – the Eagles led the game in everything except points off turnovers, to which the visitors more than trebled the home side’s tally, ultimately costing them the advantage at the break.
Eagles fans would be forgiven for feeling less than optimistic going into the third quarter, given that it has been their Achilles heel for much of the season.
Despite this apparent chink in the armour, the Sport Central franchise came out of the half-time break with an urgency that suggested player-coach Fab Flournoy may have used something resembling a hairdryer in the changing room.
His side raced to a 53-43 lead midway through the penultimate stanza, courtesy of a 12-2 run, re-establishing their double digit lead.
Fouls began to catch up with Newcastle as the quarter advanced – Scott Martin, Charles Smith and Flournoy all joined Gause with three apiece.
The Eagles edged the third quarter 20-16 to give themselves a 61-57 lead going in to the final 10 minutes, but once again it was tarnished slightly by BJ Holmes’ three on the buzzer to end the quarter.
Baskets were traded in the early minutes of the final period as both sides jockeyed for position, each knowing that the BBL title was potentially at stake.
But as was the case at the end of the second and third quarters, the Eagles’ failure to pull down defensive rebounds cost them, as Holmes sank another shot from distance to reduce Newcastle’s lead to just one point at 65-64.
Smith kept his side’s nose in front with a three of his own, but once again Sheffield responded, and when the Eagles took a timeout with just under five minutes to play their advantage was back to a single digit, 70-69.
Timeouts and free-throws followed as the Sharks failed to reclaim the lead and a succession of key rebounds, steals and fast breaks from the foul-hampered Gause, saw Newcastle Eagles take a giant step towards securing the BBL Championship title.
NEWCASTLE EAGLES: Cooke 19 (12 rebounds), Defoe 19, Gause 10, Smith 10.
SHEFFIELD SHARKS: Holmes 24, Babalola 22, Tuck 14.