A MISFIRING Newcastle Eagles relinquished their grip on the British Basketball League Cup after going down 85-80 to Leicester Riders in an entertaining and roller-coaster contest at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham.
While Fab Flournoy and his players launched a dramatic late salvage bid and almost dodged a major bullet by eradicating a 14-point deficit to take the lead with a minute remaining, Riders grabbed the momentum back in a nerve-shredding conclusion.
The Eagles were never truly at the races and were persistently second best – aside from their late renaissance.
Perhaps their chronic lack of verve was due to relative inactivity during recent weeks and, without any real game sharpness, it took them far too long to get into their stride. However, the credit must go to Leicester who thoroughly deserved their cup final success.
They did a great job defensively on the Eagles, not least in shackling the in-form forward duo Kareem Maddox and Darius Defoe.
The pair were blunted in spectacular fashion, managing a paltry seven points between them, and their inability to finish clinically at the basket was critical.
Only Joe Chapman found his scoring touch, exploding for 29 points.
However, with the Riders lighting it up from three-point range, it was the Eagles’ defensive intensity which was most lacking.
They fell behind and found themselves labouring in a shoddy spell during the second quarterwhen they handed the initiative firmly to their opponents.
With the game locked at 24-24, a 16-5 run by Riders put them ahead by double digits.
Things didn’t improve after the break when, instead of cutting the gap, the Eagles found themselves 14 points behind at 65-51 heading into the final ten minutes and with the game ebbing rapidly away.
They still trailed 78-68 with less than four minutes remaining, but then scored 13 of the next 14 points to amazingly take the lead as the Riders threatened to implode.
It was a stirring fight-back, but defeat for the Riders would have been harsh.
They responded magnificently as Zaire Taylor drove a knife through Eagles’ hearts with a big triple during the last minute before Drew Sullivan twisted it against his former club with a superb defensive block.
It helped seal the deal and ensured Leicester got what they deserved in their very first cup final.
As the Eagles’ managing-director Paul Blake subsequently handed the BBL Cup to the elated Riders, he still had reason to be satisfied.
For while Newcastle didn’t add to their lengthy list of accolades, they played their part in a truly wonderful advert for British basketball watched by a bumper 7,500 crowd.
The Riders have now beaten the Eagles in both match-ups this season so far and, with three more pieces of BBL silverware on offer, it will be intriguing to see how the Eagles respond to the serious threat now posed to their domestic dominance.
NEWCASTLE: Chapman 29, Smith 17, Huffman 13
LEICESTER: Couisnard 17, Anderson 15, Rowe 15