B Braun Sheffield Sharks 66-59 Newcastle Eagles (15-15, 15-16, 19-10, 17-18)
(Sharks – Koch 25, Nichols 11, Ogunyemi 8; Eagles – Hamlet 23, Varner 12, Kennedy 11)
It’s not very often that two teams in the men’s BBL face off just three weeks into the season in a must-win situation. But when the winless Newcastle Eagles travelled to Ponds Forge to play the at home 1-4 B Braun Sheffield Sharks, both teams entered the contest knowing the result could play an important role in deciding who clinches a final spot in the playoffs later in the season.
Both teams have had difficulties scoring the ball so far in the Championship, and the Eagles tried to address this by adding Donovan Johnson this past week. This was clear in the opening quarter when the only easy points came off a Sharks’ telegraphed pass that was spotted early by the Eagles’ Lesley Varner. The forward flew into the passing lane for an uncontested fast break dunk, which proved to be a rare highlight in the opening frame.
In the halfcourt, however, it’s clear the Eagles are struggling, especially when sharpshooting point guard Ben Mockford left the game early and didn’t return for the rest of the game.
The team relied on pick and roll or horns action, and handing off the ball to captain Darius Defoe, with Javion Hamlet keeping the scoreboard ticking over, but at the end of the opening quarter each team finished with just 15 points.
The second quarter was equally slow, and the only true pop from the Sheffield crowd came when Hensy Sako went up for a giant block to stop David Cohn from getting a clean layup in transition. But even that was disappointing as it turned out to be a goaltending.
Bennett Koch kept the scoreboard ticking over for the Sharks, as he scored three and-ones in the first half, which forced Defoe into foul trouble. Koch worked hard to get into the paint and was rewarded by his teammates, using a power dribble to get control then rise up for a hook shot on multiple occasions.
It was still Newcastle’s slim lead going into the final minute of the second quarter, when Varner caught the ball above the break on a dribble hand-off, stepped back and hit a three. But Koch answered back with a tough face up and drive to the basket for another two paint points.
The following possession saw the Eagles’ Duke Shelton turn the ball over with a travel, and a well run play on the other end resulted in a miss that saw Newcastle head into the half with a one-point lead.
Perhaps frustrated with the low output of his team, Defoe said on his way into the locker room: “We have to keep getting the ball moving and keep playing hard.”
The second half opened for the Sheffield Sharks in the same way it ended: a post-up for Koch that resulted in him being fouled by Shelton to go to the line, where he hit one of two.
Newcastle’s ensuing possession suggested there wasn’t much of a change of gameplan, as the Eagles attempted a pick and roll but couldn’t do anything when the defence went underneath the screen. With Ben Mockford sitting in the first half after just three minutes, it looked like his team would be short on shooters, and their opponents made them pay.
Sheffield took a six-point lead in the second half, thanks to an even balance of Kipper Nichols staying on the attack, and poor Eagles offence on the other end.
With Sheffield’s Rodney Glasgow Jr on the defensive end continuing to dip under screens when put in a pick and roll against the Eagles’ Hamlet and Shelton, Newcastle’s Hamlet rose up to finally hit a three-point attempt. Glasgow Jr hit one right back on the ensuing possession, but Hamlet went back at him for a layup, enjoying the head-to-head challenge.
The home team continued to find their way to the basket, with Javion Ogunyemi losing his defender, Defoe, on a cut up to the top of the key and a quick first step to drive for a layup. Then as the third quarter shotclock was counting down Jordan Ratinho snaked into the lane for a buzzer beating floater to create an eight point lead heading into the fourth.
Prior to the game, top Sharks points and assist man Saeed Nelson said the key to the game was “not coming out flat. The past three or four games we’ve fallen short, so if we come out with energy we’ll be alright”.
The energy might not have been the case in the first half, but he certainly came out of the half with renewed focus.
Good ball movement resulted in a lane opening up for Nelson on the team’s first offensive possession, and while he missed the layup, he stayed with the play after Defoe got the rebound and stole the ball back for an acrobatic layup.
He was due for a score, after being the go-to guy for Sheffield so far this season, and said: “It’s a league fit for my game. Up tempo, athletic dudes. It’s a good league for me to be in. The city is comfortable, the team is nice, everyone is good with each other.”
Nelson continued to bring the energy and found Koch as the big man dove to the basket for a pump fake and open layup as his defender flew by.
With three minutes to go, Koch and Defoe leapt for a loose ball after a deflection but the Eagles captain landed underneath the Sharks’ top scorer and Koch landed flat on his back. He was severely winded and had to be taken off but the win looked secure at that stage with the home team up 12.
The Eagles managed to close the gap slightly, but it wouldn’t be enough and they fell to 0-4 in the BBL Championship. It marks the first time this has happened since 1991-1992, before they moved to Newcastle and were known as the Sunderland Saints. It’s definitely a new era for one of the most successful franchises in league history, especially after they missed the Play-offs last season. They might miss it again this year after an important loss this early in the season.
Meanwhile, it’s a step in the right direction for the Sharks, who move to 2-4.
Koch seemed to suffer no long term impact of his nasty fall, and when asked about his BBL career high of 25, he said: “It doesn’t happen very often, it just seemed to fall my way, I got the benefit of the calls but I capitalised on the free throws.
“We struggled at the beginning of the season, but we’ve found our identity, so it’s a big win for us. Coach gave a pretty good talk in the locker room, he said we got to step up on defence as it leads to offence.”
If this is the turning point for Sheffield, make sure you BUY TICKETS to watch them live in the next few weeks.