Newcastle Eagles rallied from 14 points down to thrillingly edge out fellow powerhouse Leicester Riders 94-82 in the BBL Cup Final at a packed Barclaycard Arena in Birmingham on Sunday.
Riders largely controlled the opening 20 minutes and really turned the screw in the middle of the third quarter, going 65-51 up following a 15-5 run.
But Eagles, who swept all four BBL titles last season, dug deep and showcased stunning resilience and belief to snatch it in the fourth.
Eagles player-coach Fab Flournoy, sealing a 23rd piece of silverware in 14 years in charge, told a Press conference following the final buzzer: “It was the most intense final I’ve been part of in the past 10 years.”
Eagles guard and Final MVP Rahmon Fletcher, who scored a game-high 18 points, said: “It was a tough game. Leicester are a tough team, well prepared.
“We had our backs against the wall and took their best shot in the first half.”
A 12-0 Eagles streak in the third cut the gap back to two, 68-66 at the death in the period – before a second 13-3 tear from the champions finally decided a ding-dong battle.
Riders went back up by three, 77-74 on a three from the top of the arc from forward Jamell Anderson before veteran Eagles guard Drew Lasker drew on all his experience to ignite the contest’s pivotal moments.
Lasker attacked Riders’ rim back-to-back to make it 78-77 and put Eagles up for good.
Fletcher got a scruffy runner to fall to rebuild Eagles’ lead to 84-80 – cue Charles Smith.
The forward and Eagles legend, now 40, found himself open from the left arc and he buried a three to make it 87-80 inside the final two minutes.
Smith knew its significance and wheeled away in front of Eagles’ ecstatic supporters, arms wider than the euphoria on his intoxicated face.
Finally, there was no coming back.
On a bitter, winter’s day across the country, the occasion and match-up between the BBL’s two current juggernauts was one to get the blood pumping.
The powerhouses’ respective fanbases were, in classic fashion, banked directly behind the teams’ benches.
The showpiece had the league’s top offence, Eagles (averaging 95.3 points per game) tackling the BBL’s best defence in 2015/16, Riders (conceding 63.9 points per game). Something had to give.
Riders, perhaps naturally given Leicester’s relative proximity to Birmingham compared to Newcastle’s, audibly had more followers in a pumped arena pre-tip.
Few neutrals were tipping a winner. It was too close to call.
Riders boss Rob Paternostro was rocking a sharp waistcoat beneath a beautiful suit on the sidelines, while opposite number Flournoy was naturally suited up after recently returning from a long-term Achilles injury.
Riders had half a step on Eagles in the opening frame, piecing together a 10-2 run, with four points from talisman and forward Drew Sullivan, to lead by seven, 18-11 at the midway point.
Eagles certainly weren’t panicking and made solid plays in response, while Riders intelligently and consistently got to the foul line and knocked down 10/12 from the charity stripe to lead 28-25 heading into the second.
Eagles rallied well and underlined their stellar championship-winning credentials with an 8-0 streak behind four points from Smith to put them 31-28 up.
Riders then really began to get their tails up and Eagles’ body language, imperious and unmoved to that stage, started to sag slightly.
High-flying Riders forward TrayVonn Wright started to take off and enjoyed two dunks in an 8-0 Riders tear which put Paternostro’s squad up by five, 38-33.
Riders’ back-up point-guard Conner Washington then had five points in a second Riders run, which really began to pile the pressure on the favourites and put them up by as many as 11, 50-39 close to half-time.
Washington smoothly buried a three from the top of the arc to spark the streak before, following an Eagles throwaway on offence, outpacing a lagging Smith on the break to score at the cup and draw a clenched fist from his coach.
WBBL Trophy Final
Sheffield Hatters smashed Barking Abbey Crusaders by 34 points, 79-45 in a lopsided undercard at the Barclaycard Arena in Birmingham on Sunday.
Hatters led 15-0 in the middle of the first quarter and demoralisingly never let Crusaders, who trailed by 25, 45-20 at half-time, gain a foothold.
Hatters forward Helen Naylor was named Final MVP, scoring a team-high 21 points, including 3/5 threes and grabbing seven rebounds.