The Leicester Riders were crowned the BBL Playoff Champions thanks to their 81-60 victory over the London Lions at the o2 Arena, London, on Sunday afternoon.
The Riders entered the game having dominated their win to a league championship, losing just six times all year in all competitions, whilst the Lions entered having had an incredible second half of the season having made the semi-finals in the Cup and Trophy and finishing league runners-up, their highest ever position.
The Lions received a hometown reception when they were announced pregame as most of the huge crowd was in their favour.
The opening term was edged by the Lions, buoyed by incredible support in the arena and hard work on the offensive end but the Riders played hard-nosed defence from the get-go and limited the effectiveness of League MVP Justin Robinson.
The Riders looked to get on the scoreboard early on with aggressive play from Pierre Hampton but it was the Lions who took an early lead as the sides exchanged points in the paint.
The first three-pointer of the game struck by Riders’ Captain Tyler Bernardini, given too much space at the top of the arc which tied the game at 7 but after a free-throw and a spell of defensive excellent from the Lions allowed Peel to finish at the rim building the Lions lead and bringing the raucous home support to its feet.
Andre Lockhart gave the Lions the lead heading into the first intermission as he was fouled at the buzzer and, despite the PA system blaring music at the end of the quarter Lockhart still drained the extras like it was any other day in the gym.
The second quarter looked to be going the Lions’ way with Brandon Peel putting in a mighty shift to get the scoring going for his side, but Pierre Hampton would once again prove a thorn in the side of the Lions as he would spur his side on to a game-changing 10-0 run early in the second quarter.
Trayvon Wright had scored some spectacular dunking ability in the first quarter but in the second he showed his strength to pull down rebounds and finish despite heavy contact. Wright and Peel continued their incredible duel as Wright spectacularly blocked Peel to close out the first half, the Riders leading 39-28.
Brandon Peel got the second half scoring underway with a long-range two-pointer but, as he had done all game, Hampton went the other way and got those points right back for the Riders, a pattern of play which would repeat.
The third quarter was marred by a moment of controversy as London’s Flo Larkai was ejected from the game for an off the ball incident involving Shane Walker. Larkai was adjudged to have elbowed Walker aggressively in the head, although on first viewing it did not look that serious. Macaulay branded the incident “ridiculous” in his post-game press conference.
Whilst the incident didn’t change the result it had major implications for the Lions as they were down a valuable member of their rotation and an experienced player who has contributed well for the Lions down the stretch.
One of the biggest cheers of the game came in the third quarter when Londoner and UEL student Abe Ekperuoh scored his first points of the contest and the hometown crowd appreciated his basket in great voice.
The final quarter started as had two of the previous, with Pierre Hampton attacking the basket. The Riders were at their ruthlessly efficient best in the second half as they managed their lead well never giving the Lions much hope. Any hope that remained was extinguished with a phenomenal one-handed jam with one hand behind his back from Trayvon Wright who would win the Finals MVP.
Even in a losing effort, Brandon Peel was everything he has shown himself to be all season. A gritty hardworking defender and exceptional scorer of the basketball as he led the Lions in scoring and rebounding getting a double-double with 22 points and 13 rebounds.
The final minute of the game was played out in front of an emptying o2 arena as the whiteout block of Riders fans stood and applauded their heroes. The game, however, wouldn’t be dribbled out, instead, young Londoner Jonathan James showed off what the Lions fans could expect from him as he exploded to the rim for a two-handed jam. As the applause continued and the final seconds ticked off the clock the party was getting ready to start. Today, was the Leicester Rider’s day as they won the BBL Playoff Final 81-60.
In the dying moments of the game, Tyler Bernardini left the court to a standing ovation for what would be the last time as the club captain announced his retirement after the game. Eric Robertson also announced his retirement postgame as his time studying in Leicester has come to an end he will be moving home to America, getting married and starting a new career outside of professional sports.
Head Coach of Leicester Rob Paternostro spoke of feeling “disrespected” leading into the contest. “I felt like we certainly we earned to be here today. I think that when you looked at us from November on we were pretty dominant. People were talking about the last few results against them [Lions] that we weren’t going to be ready for it today. They have some good players but we have some really good players too and we wanted to show that today.”
Paternostro was keen to stress how well his side had played on the defensive end of things. “I’m so proud of our defensive effort again, our attention to detail, it’s not just about physically being ready it’s about mentally being ready and the group that we have in these big games to stay locked in. They followed the gameplan to a tee.”
Macaulay made his feelings known after the game but is already looking forward to coach the Lions next year. “[I’m] Disappointed, [it’s] very disappointing. What we wanted to do was put who we were on the floor and I’m not sure that who we were and in the end, we were a little out of character and in the end, the best team won … Maybe the occasion got to some of us.”