The fact that three Newcastle Eagles players could have won BBL Cup Final MVP tells you most of what you need to know.
British basketball’s top dogs, since coach Fab Flournoy’s continuing dynasty began to first bear fruit in 2005, also had three other scorers in double-digits, in the first showpiece of the campaign against the club currently closest to them, Leicester Riders at the Barclaycard Arena in Birmingham on Sunday.
Riders had five. In a 12-point dogfight and 94-82 Eagles triumph, that’s all the difference you need.
Eagles’ American guard Rahmon Fletcher, 27 and from Missouri, got the Final MVP nod – but fellow guard Drew Lasker and forward Charles Smith were both right in the running until the finishing post.
“I think it was decided on the toss of a coin,” quipped Paul Nilsen, BBL PR Manager, to waiting media at Sunday’s post-game Press conference.
Veteran Lasker, 33 and from Texas, said: “If you follow us you know it’s a toss-up every night.
“We had six guys in double figures tonight. That’s just the make-up of our team.
“There’s not one lead singer: lead singer is coach. The rest of us are just back-up dancers, and go out there and get the job done.”
Riders did all the early running in front of a noisy and tribal five-figure crowd at the Barclaycard Arena on Sunday.
Rob Paternostro’s team held that advantage for 30 of the 40 minutes, but Eagles, sealing a 23rd BBL title under American Flournoy, 42 and from New York, eclipsed them when it really mattered.
Lasker, coming off the bench and completing 24 minutes, sparked the captivating contest’s killer moments, scoring seven of 14 personal points in a 21-8 Eagles streak, which overturned a 72-66 Riders lead early in the fourth and put Newcastle 87-80 up with 1:52 remaining.
Game over – finally – in a terrific showcase for the British game.
Lasker said: “It was a great representation for British basketball: two great teams going up against each other.
“It was a game of runs. Fortunately, we were able to make the last push and ultimately win.”
‘Back against the wall’
Eagles, defending all four BBL crowns after a rare clean sweep last campaign, are now on a spectacular 28-game winning streak, now only second to the all-time league record of 45 set by Kingston Kings in 1990-91.
Fletcher, who finished on Sunday with 18 points on 9/15 shooting, said: “We had our back against the wall at half-time, but we knew we could play better.
“Like Fab said in the fourth, we just had to step on their throat.”
Riders – currently 12-1 in the league standings behind 18-0 Eagles – had the champs down by as many as 14, 65-51 in the middle of the third following a 15-5 run.
Riders centre Trevor Gruis, troubling Eagles inside, and forward Jamell Anderson shared 10 of the points.
Eagles, revived by ice-cold outside shooting from guard Joe Chapman, who finished with 17 points, quickly responded in a rollercoaster match-up with a 12-0 tear and the game’s longest unanswered streak, slashing the deficit to two, 68-66 late in the penultimate period.
“Our game plan was to attack,” said Fletcher afterwards. “Once we do that, we know it’s going to be tough for any team we play.”
Lasker said: “It says a lot about us: there’s never no quitting – and we know how to win in different ways.
“You might look at our record and think it’s been an easy journey to get to where we are, but it hasn’t. That’s what prepared us for today.”
The Final blow
The dagger arrived from – who else? – Eagles’ veteran talisman under Flournoy, Smith, who is now 40.
Eagles led by four, 84-80 and suddenly had Riders where they wanted them late in the fourth.
Smith was fed the ball, open for the three-point attempt from the left arc – right in front of Riders’ bench. Smith was 0/4 from deep at that seemingly impossible point.
You’d have thought the man from Philadelphia was playing golf with old friends Sunday morning when he smoothly stroked home his effort from the perimeter. It was never going anywhere but sweetly in.
Smith then, underlining the significance of the shot, suddenly exploded into emotion, racing away down the sideline, arms spread like wings wider than his smile, celebrating in front of Eagles’ euphoric fans.
It wasn’t a textbook study of transition defence for aspiring students of basketball on Tyneside, but it was enough.
Lasker, describing Eagles’ breathtaking rally afterwards, said: “I never really looked at the score. I just knew we were down and knew that there was a lot of time left on the clock.
“We never panicked.”
Flournoy, summing up, said: “Everyone wanted to see what was going to happen today. For the occasion, the game was fantastic.
“It came down to tactics and making sure everyone knew their assignments on the court. Neither team were going to run away with it. That just wasn’t going to happen.”
Lasker, a warrior and spark for Eagles all afternoon, added: “Look at the stats: this is who we are. There’s no selfishness; nobody cares who gets MVP.
“There was only one trophy we cared about, and we all get to share that, the BBL Cup.”