Newcastle Eagles have little reason to sweat over the enticing prospect of a third successive BBL Cup Final appearance, despite suffering an 82-79 defeat in the first leg of their semi-final tie at Sheffield Sharks.
With the Sharks’ lead potentially vulnerable to a single swish of the net at the start of the second leg, Fab Flournoy will feel his team have set things up nicely for the return fixture at Sport Central.
Not least because they trailed by ten points with less than four minutes remaining, had to contend with worrying foul trouble and their usual hot-shot duo Malik Cooke and Scott Martin were both unable to produce in their usual fruitful fashion.
The visitors started the contest brightly and after scoring eight of the first ten points, threatened to jump out on the Sharks early, but the home side gradually grew in influence and showed why they are flying high in the BBL Championship.
A flurry of free-throws helped Sharks edge 22-20 ahead after the opening quarter, in a game characterised by feisty and tenacious defence from two teams clearly out to continue their love affair with the BBL Cup.
The home side continued their good work after the second period and took advantage of the Eagles’ defence struggling to prevent the Sharks slicing to the basket to hand them a healthy 35-27 lead.
The visitors were also struggling to get any offensive rebounds and with the in-form Martin kicking his heels in frustration on the bench after a third early foul, it briefly looked worrying for the away side.
However, they rallied and with Charles Smith and Darius Defoe both able to keep the scoreboard ticking over, the Eagles headed to the locker room trailing by just a couple of points at 39-37.
There was a sense of déjà vu when the play resumed, with Sharks still driving strongly to the hoop at every opportunity and the Eagles not getting any second-chance points due to an impressive thirst for defensive rebounds from the hosts.
And, with foul trouble continuing to mount for Flournoy’s team as Martin and Defoe both moved to four in the game, it was perhaps unsurprising they fell 61-53 behind heading into the last ten minutes.
A couple of three-pointers by Smith got the Eagles back in contention, but the Sharks again got onto the front foot and when Jeremie Simmons made it 76-66, it looked like the tie was about to ebb away.
Fortunately the Eagles dug deep and whilst Cooke wasn’t his usual clinical self, he still played a decisive role with nine consecutive points during crunch time.
That helped his team out of a potential hole and to narrow the gap sufficiently enough that it meant by the time the final buzzer sounded, it was more or less a case of as you were for both semi-finalists.
Defoe finished with an impressive 18 points and nine rebounds, whilst Smith added a game-high 24 points to set up a tasty second game at Sport Central on Friday, December 13.
Newcastle – Smith 24, Defoe 18, Cooke 16
Sheffield – Simmons 18, Horstmann 18,Lewis 10