Amit Nathwani reporting from Wembley Arena
Leicester Riders have won the BBL play-offs for only the second time in their history after beating Newcastle Eagles 68-57.
It is Riders’ most successful season ever after they picked up the BBL Championship and Cup earlier in the season.
Leicester’s defensive play this season has been their forte and it proved so again in this enthralling tie, restricting Newcastle to only making 35% of their shots. The Eagles posted the lowest score ever in a BBL Play-off final, breaking Riders’ record of 62 points in their loss to Newcastle in last year’s final.
In a Play-off final, only five teams have ever scored less than 70 points, and they were all beaten.
The Eagles were struggling straight from the tip-off, GB Olympic captain Drew Sullivan and Zaire Taylor stealing almost straight away as they found their stride. It took Newcastle three and a half minutes to score through Kareem Maddox. It gave his team the lead for the first and only time of the game, only 47 seconds.
Up to that point, Riders had found it tough to score but when veteran Yorick Williams entered the fray, it changed the game around. During a 13-0 run, Williams assisted and scored five, which gained his side an 11-point lead at 18-7. They managed to maintain that until the end of the quarter, where they led 22-11.
Newcastle were forced to try for three pointers, which did not go in thanks to the Riders defence going from strength to strength. MVP (Most Valuable Person) for the season Sullivan hit six early on in the quarter as Leicester were up 30-15.
The lead was cut down to single figures thanks to Eagles’ Maddox who helped his team score six unanswered points. However, baskets from Williams and Jorge Calvo ensured Riders maintained a score line in their favour, 38-26 at half time.
Newcastle head coach and player must have said something to his players as they looked like a different team and demonstrated why they have been the team to beat over the past few years, as they closed the gap to just seven points. This did not last long though.
Riders showed their quality as Sullivan and Jamell Anderson led a 13-6 run to extend the lead to 55-41 heading into the last quarter of the season.
Jay Cousinard hit a triple early on as Riders were up 60-43. The Eagles tried to pull themselves back into the contest, like they had done in the Cup final in Birmingham, but to no avail as the result did not look in any doubt at any stage.
When the buzzer sounded, most of the 8,500 celebrated. Riders players and coaching staff bounced over the advertising hoardings to sprint onto court and join the revelries. The dethroned champions were feeling contrasting emotions as they walked backed to their bench with their heads down.
The final is the fifth time Leicester have beaten Newcastle this season and their third piece of silverware this term, having not won any since 2001.
At the heart of it and leading from the front was Great Britain’s captain Drew Sullivan. He was the undisputable MVP with 24 points, six assists, five rebounds and three steals and will doubtless have to extend his trophy cabinet after a season in which he has won almost every personal accolade going, not to mention three more winners’ medals.
GB Olympic Captain Drew Sullivan proved why he was the BBL Player of the season as he ended the game as the top scorer, with 24 points. He also had five rebounds and 3 steals, which showed how valuable he is to the Riders. Nottingham born Jamell Anderson made 6/7 shots as he hit 13 points and six rebounds. Jay Cousinard, who was named the coach’s player of the year at the club’s award ceremony, scored eight points and seven rebounds, while Zaire Taylor also scored eight and recorded two steals.
Leicester coach Rob Paternostro, who has been central to the success of this season, paid tribute to his team and said they will always remember them:
“I am so proud of these guys,” he said. “This season where, even though we had 43 wins, I pushed these guys. I felt it was my responsibility to keep pushing them because we deserve this.
“Not only are they a team that I will remember forever for basketball, but the relationships we have as a group, I will never forget those. These guys are like family to me.”
Sullivan said he was proud of his teammates and ranked this season amongst the best in his 10-year career “what makes this season more special than any of the others is that we made some history for the club. Winning its first Championship is pretty special!”
The other players in the squad all look up to Sullivan for his constant advice and his will to win: “The MVP award is a nice bonus. The winning drives me more than the individual accolades. I have responsibility to my teammates and coaches and if I have a chance to help a player become better, that’s also my responsibility and whether we’re up or down 20 points, I’m still going to make pointers because I want us to be the best we can possibly be”.
Leicester Riders are the best team in the league and are a force to be reckoned with after this historic season.