Newcastle Eagles’ edged a little closer to realising their dream of winning the BBL Championship as they derailed the hopes of the defending champions with a dramatic and absorbing 84-83 win at Leicester Riders.
The box-office nature of this epic rivalry was played out once again as Fab Flournoy and his players came out on top in yet another classic. And, it was a superb advert for British basketball, unlike the post-game fracas and bad blood which simmered after their previous meeting.
There is little doubt that for some within the Eagles’ camp, the flare-up at Sport Central will have made this victory taste even sweeter. The other reasons for added satisfaction were that in claiming successive victories against their rivals, they have taken the precious head-to-head in the league series.
Additionally, there was also no mitigation for Riders’ for this defeat, with former Eagles’ star and Great Britain captain Drew Sullivan back in the Leicester line-up, along with influential playmaker Ant Downing – both were absent last time.
It proved a bumpy ride for the Eagles, who once again had to fend off a furious and relentless comeback, just like in their previous road win at league leaders Worcester Wolves.
In fact, Flournoy and his players watched in dismay as a massive 19-point advantage evaporated.
The visitors were on top for three quarters of the contest and at times were rampant as the home side desperately tried to discover some sort of offensive rhythm to spark themselves into action. With Malik Cooke leading the way, the Eagles stormed into a 29-18 lead and even though Riders cut the gap to six points, the away team hit top gear leading up to half-time and were 54-36 ahead when they reached the locker rooms.
A backlash from Riders seemed inevitable, but when Charles Smith drained a big three–pointer to take the lead out to 19 points, it looked like the Eagles might be on course for an unexpected comfortable win.
Only it wouldn’t be a typical match-up between these two sides without either a significant twist or sting in the tail. Right on cue, Riders obliged as they embarked on an offensive frenzy to outscore Eagles 37-18 across the third and fourth quarter break.
The home supporters erupted as Downing made it 79-79 with over two minutes to play, but the Eagles responded to their collapse in the best possible way.
They found the mental strength and nerve to recover as they made the free-throws they needed in the closing seconds to scrape over the finishing line.
Cooke and Paul Gause combined for 40 points, while Drew Lasker also produced an excellent cameo to underpin a superb ninth league win in ten games.
Not that there is much time to savour the victory, with both teams scheduled to meet again on Friday at Sport Central, where another Eagles success would go a long way to determining the final destination of the BBL league title.
LEICESTER: Downing 19, Anderson 14, Hassan 13, Sullivan 13
NEWCASTLE: Gause 21, Cooke 19, Lasker 15