As is always the case when Cheshire Phoenix and London Lions meet it was an incredibly close back and forth game, edged by the hosts 86-81 in the Copper Box Arena on Friday night.
The Lions were missing several big-name players with Latinovic still nursing his hip injury, Will Hall and Moritz Lanneger not at the arena, still dealing with contractual issues. Jack Isenbarger, one of the stars of the season for the Lions, was also missing from action tonight as he has left the club to join the Lakeside Lightning in Australia.
The Lions controlled much of the first quarter, but despite a hot start by the hosts they only had a 5 point advantage after ten minutes. The visitors, who were slow to get into the game, were still able to keep touch with the Lions in a pulsating opening period of play which saw Robert Sandoval and Joe Ikhinmwin lead the charge for their teams.
Cory Dixon goes in with the hang time!#WeAreLondon #London #LondonLions #BritishBasketball #BBL #FridayFeeling pic.twitter.com/Y49f2OwDdO
— London Lions (@London_Lions) January 12, 2018
The second period of play was a mixed bag for both sides, with the Lions in control of the first five minutes, but the second five they played sloppy basketball and made mistakes which allowed Cheshire to close an 11 point lead down to just 2 points. Justin Robinson, always impressive for the Lions, led the game in scoring with 12 points at the half, with Cheshire big man CJ Gettys being stifled to just 6 points.
Cheshire took just their second lead of the game early in the third quarter but the London Lions would blow by them taking control of the game in an explosive ten-minute spell.
The Phoenix had a one-point lead at 48-49 but the Lions roared back with a 16-2 run to take a 13 point lead into the final period. Once again Robinson and Dixon lead the way for the Lions with Peel playing a pivotal role in his powerful post play. Gettys was once again contained by the Lions as he scored just 2 points in the quarter.
The fourth quarter started with a bang for the Lions with a two-handed man jam from Dixon slamming home the dunk of the night after a pinpoint pass from Peel. Despite the high flying action from the Lions, the Phoenix had the better of the opening exchanges and with the lead pegged back to ten points, Vince Macaulay felt forced into using a timeout.
Out of the timeout, the Lions were stopped and as May-Thompson elevated towards the rim he was taken out by Lions captain Ikhinmwin, who picked up the unsportsmanlike foul. Ikhinmwin, after rearranging some furniture on the sideline, rushed to pick up and apologise to the Cheshire forward. May-Thomspon made both free throws as the visitors edged back into the game.
Phoenix was back at the stripe on the next play, Gettys dropping his ninth and tenth points of the game after a foul by Ikhinmwin. The Lions were then forced into a second timeout in the space of two minutes after a three from a red-hot Sandoval. Gettys began to get into the game, getting back to the line to shoot an and-one after a strong two-handed finish from the big man, who had a breakout fourth quarter.
The lead was cut to just one point, the hosts on the wrong end of a 12-2 run. Lockhart, a defensive lock for the Lions, was sent to the line after a heavy foul against the nimble point guard and he made no mistake draining all three efforts to make it a two-possession ball game. Cheshire’s next trip up the floor put the hosts over the foul limit and May-Thomspon to the line to shoot free throws. He didn’t miss. Cheshire managed to get a defensive stop and within seconds had the lead, Robert Sandoval, excellent all night, draining a three with little over three minutes to play.
Justin Robinson makes the crowd erupt! #WeAreLondon #London #LondonLions #CheshirePhonenix #BBL #Basketball BritishBasketball pic.twitter.com/F3RV49tQDQ
— London Lions (@London_Lions) January 12, 2018
The lead bounced back and forth between the two sides until a Paul Guede three-pointer was followed up by a fantastic defensive stop, thanks in part to the hustle and grind of Lockhart and the pressure of Cory Dixon. Moments later Guede tore the roof off the copper box with a second three in as many possessions to give his team a four-point advantage with 1:34 to play.
Sandoval halved the gap with a layup but the Lions on their next trip up the floor did a great job killing clock by moving the ball around the perimeter before Justin Robinson drove towards the basket for a lay-in that would ultimately settle the tie. The Lions sent Sandoval to the line to shoot two, but he bricked his first attempt and making the second gave possession to the Lions.
The home side defended gallantly in the final moments and their victory was sealed as Cheshire failed to secure the basketball on a rebound. All that was left was for Dixon to inbound and Guede to dribble the final few seconds off the clock, secure in the knowledge that the Lions has done enough to tie the season series 2-2.
Lions Owner and Head-Coach Vince Macaulay was delighted with the win post game, ” that was a terrific win, the guys just gutted it out, the just showed what it was like playing for London. we were smarting after the loss to Cheshire … so that was something that motivated us through this game. We’ve got a lot to prove, the team hit a few bumps in the road…it’s up to us to make amends and show what we’re about”
On the direction the team is heading Macaulay is confident, “we’ve got a team that can compete for everything and that’s what we’re going to do, try and win some games and have some fun along the way.”
Paul Guede, who scored vital points to secure the win in crunch time was pleased to get a win over their “overnight rivals.” “It was all about taking care of business. Got to give credit to Justin…he did a great job drawing the defence and just finding me I had the easy job just knocking them down really and truly.”
Peel, once again a game changer for the Lions, “This was a statement game, showing that, even though we don’t have as many pieces as we used to, we can play with anybody in this league and we’re a team to contend with.”
Phoenix General Manager James Brice was disappointed with the loss but took positives heading into Sunday’s clash with Worcester. “It was a tough game, London went on some big runs and we did well to bring it back. We’re disappointed with the loss…we just ran out of steam, in the end, ran out of time. Worcester, Sunday, we’ll be going all out to win it, we’ll be putting everything on the floor to win.”
The young Johnathans, Lashley and James, saw meaningful minutes for the first time this year with Johnathan Lashley making his BBL debut. Lashley “I’m just happy to have stepped on the court. We all battled hard and it ended well. I like it, man, I like it.” James, who was used in a defensive role when he was on the floor likewise liked it. “It was a good win and a deserved win, especially that we only have nine players. We come out and show what we got in front of our home fans it’s a good win.”
Another classic contest between the Lions and Phoenix was won, in the end, by the better team on the night, but the way Cheshire are able to make runs and get back at teams is an incredible strength. Cheshire host Worcester on Sunday in the Trophy to play a dress rehearsal of the Cup final, to be played in two weeks. London has a week to prepare for the Loughborough Student Riders in their Trophy Quarter-final next week.
Featured image Photo Credit: CarolJMoir