Eagles’ comeback leaves semi-final on knife-edge
RIDERS EDGE FIRST LEG AT MORNINGSIDE ARENA BUT FLETCHER STEALS THE SHOW
LEICESTER Riders’ Play-offs semifinal with the Newcastle Eagles hangs in the balance after Riders edged a 77-76 victory in the first leg at the Morningside Arena last night.
In a topsy turvy match, Riders looked to have taken the match by the scruff of the neck in the first quarter, and were again dominant in the third quarter, before a late final quarter comeback by the Eagles left the tie on a knife-edge.
Riders led the Eagles in most statistical categories, but the Eagles excelled at drawing fouls, and getting to the free throw line, and they outscored the Riders 20-9 in that key category.
Leicester led from the start of the game until there was just under two minutes left in the game, when the Eagles led by a single point, before Riders came back to take a narrow first leg lead.
Riders started the game at a blistering pace, William Lee hitting an early basket inside and following that up with a three-pointer for an early 7-2 lead.
A key to the tie was how Riders could contain the former MVP guard Rahmon Fletcher and he was quickly on the scoreboard to close the gap.
Mustapha Heron drove to the basket for a three-point play, but that was cancelled out by a three-pointer from Cortez Edwards.
Geno Crandall carved through the Eagles defence for a 14-11 lead, forcing the Eagles to a time-out.
But that spurred on Riders, Crandall again finding his way to the basket, followed up by his three-pointer.
Conner Washington came off the bench to hit another from beyond the arc, and that was matched by Corey Johnson, and Riders were coasting at the end of the first quarter, leading 36-18.
It was Riders’ biggest first quarter tally in nine years.
Inevitably, the Eagles would come back, and just as expected, it centred around Fletcher.
He kept penetrating the Riders defence, setting up his team-mates, and a Justin Gordon three-pointer cut into the Leicester lead.
At this stage Riders were missing some makeable shots and the Eagles took confidence to gradually get themselves back in the game.
Mo Walker came off the bench to score a couple of big buckets inside and at half-time Riders led 49-38.
Captain Darien Nelson-Henry got Riders going in the second half with an easy inside score, and Heron followed that up with one of his own.
The game stayed finally balanced, before five points in a row by Crandall pushed Riders’ lead out to 60-48.
Fletcher hit back again, somehow finding a way to the basket, but another Crandall three-pointer kept Riders well in front.
Riders finished the third quarter with a fabulous end-to-end score finished by Anderson, and with ten minutes left Riders were well on top, leading 68-52.
But Fletcher got the Eagles off to a flying start in the fourth quarter, and he hit two three-pointers, followed by one from Justin Gordon and Newcastle had a stunning 15-1 start to the final quarter, forcing Riders to a time-out.
The Eagles had stepped up their defence but mainly Riders were missing shots they normally make and their confidence started to waver.
Walker finally got Riders moving and Lee made a huge dunk, leading to a three-point play, and Riders steadied the ship.
Riders then built a fivepoint lead before four late points by the Eagles left the tie in the balance.
Lee was the star man for the Riders with a huge double-double of 18 points and 14 rebounds and added two blocks. Crandall, left, ran the offence with flair contributing 20 points including three threepointers, as well as dishing out seven assists and making four steals. Heron was also solid with 11 points and nine rebounds.
But it was Fletcher who stole the show with 34 points on 66 per cent shooting, along with six assists and five rebounds.
Riders will need to find a way of slowing him down in the second leg at the Morningside Arena on Thursday.