London Lions 89-78 Leicester Riders
28-18, 19-18, 23-23, 19-19
(London T Zubcic 20, S Dekker 18, K Koufos 12; Leicester M Loving 21, P Whelan 16, Z Jackson 13)
Newcastle Eagles 64-84 Manchester Giants
20-28, 21-14, 14-12, 9-30
(Newcastle B Mockford 16, L Varner 15, J Hamlet 14; Manchester W Lee 22, R Fletcher 19, T Green 19)
Across social media channels, much was made of the budding rivalry between the London Lions and the league’s Leicester-based franchise during the past few seasons, including the lack of Geno Crandall, who led the Riders to Cup, League and Play-Offs trophies last season. And in the opening quarter of the first meeting between the two sides, the Lions made it seem like their teasing was warranted.
The first 10 minutes saw the home team get out to a 28-18 start, with Kosta Koufos showing why the Greek big man has a decade of NBA experience on his resumé, leading the charge with eight points.
During the second quarter, the Lions started putting on a show for the home fans, with forward Sam Dekker getting loose for a thunderous dunk in transition, then Koufos leading a fast break for Luke Nelson to awkwardly catch the ball beneath the basket but maintain hang time for an acrobatic reverse layup.
Luke Nelson said a few minutes later at the half: “We got to be a team that teams don’t want to play against. We’ve got a target on our back and we’ve got to make it tough for 40 minutes, we’ve done it in the first half.”
True to Nelson’s word, the Lions came out of the locker room with the same defensive intensity, which led to more fast break points for Dekker in the opening minute of the third quarter. One concern for the Lions, however, was captain Ovie Soko picking up a fourth foul within two minutes of the second half, and he would sit for a long stretch.
Leicester stayed in touch with London, and a three-point make from Conner Washington closed the gap back to 10. A combination of good Riders defence, and arguably the Lions’ second unit not being as clinical, meant the offence stumbled at times.
The home team turned it over with more than two minutes to go, which almost led to an open layup for Leicester’s Kimbal Mackenzie – he mishandled the ball and came back out while the Lions set up their defence. He gave up the ball to Patrick Whelan, who got the first step to penetrate the lane, which led to an open dunk for Sean Walker to close the gap to eight, and cause an immediate timeout for head coach Ryan Schmidt.
The quick break, a substitution and a telling off helped the Lions refocus and push the gap back to 11 before the end of the third quarter, and this was extended going into the fourth.
Despite Tomislav Zubcic keeping the scoreboard ticking over throughout the game for the Lions, and the star duo of Koufos and Dekker doing their duty in the fourth quarter, the play of the game has to go to GB’s own Nelson and former Stanford and NBA Summer League big man Josh Sharma. The pick-and-roll got the big man downhill through an open lane, and a perfect pass from the point guard saw Sharma slam a tomahawk dunk down on the Riders. It didn’t technically put the game out of reach for Leicester, but it probably crushed their spirit with less than six minutes to go and a gap of 16 to overcome.
After the game, Dekker said: “We were really aggressive as a group early. We got some early stops in the first two minutes. Our bigs screened really well early and we got some open looks.”
The rivalry might have been a bit one sided at the end of this one, but with a new point guard coming in the next few days for the Riders, they will be back with a vengeance later in the season.
Meanwhile, the two northern powerhouses aiming to level up the men’s BBL competition this year faced off for the first time in the 2022-23 season, and both had plenty to prove. It was the first BBL Championship game of the season for the Newcastle Eagles, and with the Manchester Giants having already dropped a game on opening night to the Bristol Flyers, it was going to be a competitive affair.
It went to script in the first half, as the teams exchanged leads. Newcastle opened up the game with a slim lead, but it was wrestled away before the end of the quarter. Early in the second, former Eagles point guard Rahmon Fletcher made a layup to put his new team up 30-20, which would be the biggest lead in the first half.
Newcastle kept chipping away thanks to tough defence that the team is known for, and a few missed free throws. During the closing seconds, Fletcher took control of the possession but bricked a layup, allowing Ben Mockford to lead a break for an alley-oop layup finish by Lesley Varner.
The back and forth continued in the second half in contrasting ways. Newcastle showed a gritty determination to grind out scores in half court, while Manchester was keen to run, with an exclamation point dunk by Tajh Green off a Fletcher assist.
Behind a packed, loud home crowd at the Vertu Motors Arena, the Eagles’ transition defence benefitted from an injection of energy. They made fast breaks more difficult and forced for the Giants, which helped turn the tide and even created a few transition buckets for Newcastle, as they took the lead and extended it to six points.
The game saw another swing of momentum thanks to Fletcher continuing to push the pace. The Giants closed the gap before the end of the quarter and took the lead again to start the fourth.
One of last week’s All Star Five from the Giants, Dirk Williams, was kept quiet for this match-up, but that didn’t seem to make much of a difference, partly because of Nick Lewis. He kept running alongside Fletcher and getting open for three-point attempts in pick and pop situations in half court offence. He scored eight of his 11 points within the first six minutes of the fourth quarter.
In a bid to close the gap, the Eagles loaded up with three-point shooters in the final few minutes. The Giants went to a zone defence that opened up three-point opportunities, but Manchester’s players kept chasing the ball around the to keep the lead for the win.
The final scoreline didn’t necessarily convey how close the contest was, but this game certainly showed that the stories from this men’s BBL season won’t all be coming out of London.
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