It might have been Andrew Sullivan’s 11 points in two minutes that proved to be the game-changer, but youngster Connor Washington truly made the BBL Cup Leicester’s again, as they beat the Newcastle Eagles 72-69 at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham on Sunday afternoon.
Leicester, trailing for the majority of the game were up 70-69 thanks to a three from Jorge Calvo and with 9.5 seconds left, Eagles had possession and Washington successfully took a charge from a driving Malik Cooke to give Riders the chance to seal the win from the line, which Jay Couisnard did.
“With Downing going down, there was going to be an opportunity for [Washington] and I thought it changed the game overall,” Leicester coach Rob Paternostro said afterwards. “Going with Connor and [Jorge] Calvo, I thought their speed and defensive pressure helped but it goes to show you, and I think this is where the league is turning, is that there are a lot of good English players that are ready to make an impact at the highest level.”
Indeed, the Riders showed the 9,000 inside the NIA why they are the reigning league champions, and now back-to-back BBL Cup winners; both against the Eagles.
And for the Eagles, this loss hurt more than 2013’s loss ever did. They lost 85-80 to Leicester that year, but as they were leading 63-51 with nine minutes left, thanks to a three from Charles Smith, who had a game-high 27 points, they must have been thinking this was their year. Riders though had the true heart of a champion – and led by Sullivan’s 11 points in the final two minutes – they showcased that.
For his efforts, Sullivan scooped MVP honours with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Cousinard added 18 points for the winners.
“The game had its ups and downs, we made some good runs in the game,” Smith said. “We got into foul trouble and we didn’t adjust to that at the end of the game. We didn’t have the right execution down the end and we couldn’t get the stops we needed.”
Down 67-56 late in the fourth, Great Britain international Sullivan took it upon himself to drag Leicester Riders back into proceedings. He wasn’t to be denied. But, despite the heroics, he still wasn’t happy at the end about it.
“To be honest I’m kind of upset that I didn’t do it earlier,” Sullivan said.
“I play with a bunch of guys who do trust me and in these situations, they want me to take the game over. Tonight, it wasn’t the best start for me personally but one thing I’ve learnt is that putting the ball in the baskets doesn’t always win games but sometimes you have to put the ball in the basket to win games.”
The start was scrappy; both teams turned the ball over in the first few possessions, before Jamell Anderson got Leicester off and running with a lone free-throw. Smith, who posted a Cup final record 39 points against Plymouth Raiders in 2012 was in good form early. His 12 points in the first ten minutes gave Eagles a 20-14 lead after one.
A beautiful drive from Sullivan and a tip-dunk from Couisnard brought the Riders to within two points within the first two possessions, but the Eagles responded with a 6-0 run to give Newcastle some breathing space at 26-18.
Both teams though were failing to execute as normally as usual though. Riders were giving away cheap fouls and the Eagles were not taking advantage of it.
Two three-pointers from Couisnard and one from Calvo brought Riders back but a timely bucket from Eagles player-coach Fabulous Flournoy broke Leicester’s spell and gave Newcastle a deserved 37-32 lead at half-time.
The third, like the previous two halves, was sloppy. Both teams only managed a field goal between them in the opening five minutes of play before a spell of bucket trading from both sides. Riders was continuously sub-par; unable to have the answers to Newcastle’s effective defensive intensity and in turn, the side from the north-east ended the third with a 7-0 burst to take them out to a 58-49 lead after three quarters.
Unfortunately for the Eagles, it went wrong from there.
“It was a tough basketball game,” admitted Newcastle coach Flournoy afterwards. “I got to give Leicester a lot of credit. In the game it was a team of identities and they had an identity and we had an identity and it was a case of forcing the identity on the opponent. We had that at the start but it was a combination of the coach and the players they had from last season to this season so when it comes to the big game, they can play in this situation.”