Newcastle Eagles edged Leicester Riders in over-time at Sport Central to go top of the BBL Championship with the fixture cementing itself as one of the hardest-fought rivalries in British basketball.
With drama aplenty – as always when the Eagles and Riders face off – the game was nothing short of an epic. Newcastle for their part switched off at the end of the fourth period with a double-digit lead, but Drew Sullivan and Co made big shots when they counted to force added minutes.
Thankfully for the Tyneside outfit, a number of stops and converted chances on the break sealed the game and kept the title race alive.
The clash promised so much in the early exchanges – Drew Lasker with a steal and foul on a breakaway dunk set a very enticing stage for the rest of the game.
But despite taking a 4-0 lead early on, Newcastle found themselves down 9-18 with four-and-a-half minutes remaining in the opening quarter, as the Riders made four consecutive three-pointers to force the home side in to a time-out.
Leicester were leading at the end of the first quarter in everything excepts steals (they had four to the Eagles’ six) and more importantly for Eagles fans, the score.
Lasker, who started the game so well, picked up the ball in a half-court set, drove inside, and faded away to make the 12ft jump shot to tie the game 22-22 at the end of the first quarter.
Leicester were unusually sloppy in possession, for a Rob Paternostro team who pride themselves on ball rotation and lethal perimeter shooters.
Twice Paul Gause was on hand to make the steal and get lay-ups, and when the Eagles took a 30-24 lead less than three minutes in to the second quarter Paternostro called a time-out and was given a technical foul for arguing with the officials – Lasker and Charles Smith duly obliged by sinking all three free shots.
After an Eagles time-out, leading 39-30, it was back in to action for Gause – his first act was to make a steal, his fourth of the half, and pass to Flournoy who was then fouled.
Such was the frustration of the Riders that they had committed five fouls with just half the second period played, and it gave them no room for manoeuvre.
The foul count was eight by the time the period ended, with Paternostro seething at a number of calls made by the referees – not that the Eagles supporters minded too much.
From the tied and tense first quarter came an uncontrolled second from Leicester, all the while Newcastle maintained their composure and held a manageable 46-37 lead at the half-time stage.
The beginning of the second half was a reverse of the first, with Leicester coming out strong and scoring the first four points to instantly cut the gap to 46-41.
The lead was all but extinguished by the half-way point in the quarter and had disappeared when Leicester made a lay-up, coupled with back-to-back shots from distance, to give them a 56-62 advantage late on in the penultimate period.
Scott Martin ended the quarter with a big three-pointer to see his side trail by a single point at 63-64 – despite being outscored 17-25 in the third, Martin’s play meant it was all to play for in the fourth.
A 13-0 run from the Eagles to open the final stanza saw them take back the lead and push ahead 76-64. Former Eagle Sullivan got Leicester’s first four points of the final quarter as he looked to find the same form that saw him score 11 straight points against Newcastle in the BBL Cup.
Sullivan – who had spent the vast majority of his pre-game warm-up from the free-throw line – was doing his best to keep the Riders in the game with three and-one baskets down the stretch.
At 86-83 Conner Washington took the game in to overtime with a long three that was deserved of the fixture – it was his only field-goal in regular time.
The teams traded blows and free-throws in added minutes and it was Eagles who edged the win 97-96.