The champagne is back on ice as the Cheshire Phoenix spoiled the part in London and keep their playoff hopes alive as they beat the London Lions 84-88 in the Copper Box, on Easter Monday, off the back of a 30 point night from Daniel Norl.
The London Lions entered their clash with the Cheshire Phoenix knowing that victory would clinch their first ever BBL League Title and secure their spot at the top of British Basketball that Vince Macaulay has long felt his club were capable of attaining.
Table-topping @London_Lions host the @CheshireNix today at the Copper Box. Hear what Lions coach Nik Lawry has to say on the potential title clincher. https://t.co/op3cmWwpOx#BritishBasketball— FocusHoops (@FocusHoops) April 22, 2019
The Lions’ intensity was evident from the outset, from the way they went through their pregame warm ups, all players holding steely gazes, locked in on the task at hand over the next forty minutes.
The Phoenix would be no pushover for the Lions, Ben Thomas’ side well in the hunt for a playoff berth that alluded them in the previous two seasons despite BBL Cup success last January. The Phoenix entered the contest in 8th position with a game in hand over the Bristol Flyers holding a 14-16 record, but with the Flyers holding the tiebreaker over them.
Hear from @CheshireNix head coach Ben Thomas ahead of their must win clash at table topping @London_Lions https://t.co/MAfCqxk8PV#BritishBasketball— FocusHoops (@FocusHoops) April 22, 2019
London had beaten on Cheshire each previous meeting in all competitions taking a 3-0 record in Sunday’s showdown.
The Copper Box had the atmosphere befitting the occasion with both sets of fans in great voice, packing out the stands and court side. Both sides are used to these settings and situations as the Cup winners of 2019 hosted the 2018 Cup winners, but Monday was another great advert for British Basketball.
The Cheshire Phoenix always threatened to spoil the Londoner’s party with some stellar basketball throughout. The opening quarter looked like being controlled by the Nix, particularly from the hand of Daniel Norl who had an 11 point first quarter, hitting a perfect 3 of 3 from beyond the arc, an outside shooting performance backed up by former Lion Cilo Latinovic and the big man CJ Gettys being too much to handle at times in the post.
The Lions had started smartly but gave up a 10-0 run to the visitors but it was the Lions who took a lead into the first intermission an offensive foul with 3.6 second left in period gave the Lions an inbound deep in their back court. Paul Guede gave it to Lockhart who brought the ball up the floor finding Guede with a bounce pass on the left side of the floor, Guede took a moment to set his feet before putting up a perfect three pointer to get the Copper Box on its feet as the buzzer sounded.
CJ Gettys was in foul trouble late on in the second quarter picking up a defensive foul and then, on the next play guarded by the tireless Brandon Peel was forced out of bounds. Gettys frustrated with his error received screamed and was given a technical foul and bench for the remainder of the period by Thomas. Gettys would see out the rest of the game without picking up another foul.
The Phoenix took a well deserved four point lead into the second half with the unstoppable Norl draining a three pointer with 3 second left on the clock, but the play of the quarter was the excellent link-up play of Gettys and Latinovic trading lob passes before Latinovic finished with a lay up. The Lions would need to lock down their former man and Norl if they hoped to close out the title on Easter Monday.
The three from @dnorl_13 to close out the half!
LIVE on @BBCSport: https://t.co/Xk2DLatgYY#BritishBasketball #NixNation pic.twitter.com/ixHWbZWOOn— British Basketball League (@BBLofficial) April 22, 2019
Both sides brought out their starting fives to kick off the second half with the battle between Kervin Bristol and CJ Gettys being a real focal point of the contest. Gettys responded to having a shot stapled to the backboard by Tabb by throwing a customary two handed jam down to give his side a five point advantage, Bristol going down the other end and bringing the sides to within three with a two handed slam of his own.
Listen to Former @London_Lions and @NBA star Olu Oydeji half time thoughts on Lions vs @CheshireNix on #SoundCloud #BritishBasketballhttps://t.co/BFMCFzAFEx— FocusHoops (@FocusHoops) April 22, 2019
Norl had an opportunity midway through the third quarter to open a four point advantage at the charity stripe, and such was the Phoenix confidence in his ability, they sent no men to contest a rebound. Norl would make one of two at the line and the game would be within one as Spencer would convert a three point play. Kervin Bristol would restore a Lions lead on the next trip up the floor being found by a perfect pass from reigning MVP Justin Robinson who was having another exceptional ballgame.
The Phoenix were looking the more tired of the two sides, with a far shorter bench than the league leaders but as both squads rotated through players they were never not in the contest.
The atmosphere in the gym could be cut with a knife as the tension rose and was evident on the face of all the players, coaches and even the referees, with the exception of Ed Udanksyy who is no stranger to refereeing tense games in loud gyms at the highest level of European basketball.
It looked as if Andre Lockhart would send the Lions into the final ten minutes with a three point lead after an exceptional coast to coast drive was finished with a gorgeous floater but Disraeli Lufadeju was fouled shooting a buzzer beater three and would make two of his freebies at the line to take the sides in 66-65 with ten to play.
The Lions started the final term hot with an 8-3 start forcing Ben Thomas to call an early timeout. There was an almost party atmosphere, even with the game tightly in the balance, as fans and players alike savoured every moment of what was a great game of basketball.
Joe Ikhinmwin embodies everything the London Lions see themselves to be. Hard working, intense and good to watch. He turned up his intensity levels in the final minutes and his team went with him fighting for everything down the stretch but never able to break free of a tenacious Phoenix side like they have managed so many times this season.
Cheshire held a four-point lead with two minutes on the clock and the Lions were out of fouls give. Phoenix were happy to play for time but the Lions had an impressive level of calm about them as they called a timeout with 53 seconds on the clock, but without their second highest scorer Brandon Peel off the floor.
The play out of the inbound failed as a Lion stepped out of bounds and Ben Thomas, seeing a chance to wrap up the contest called time. The Lions stepped on the floor with their most defensive five whilst the Phoenix went back to their starters. It worked as Jordan Spencer forced an offensive foul from Dii-Jon Allen-Jordan. The Lions looked to get to within one with a corner three from Andre Lockhart which missed the mark and Louis Sayers was sent to the line with 16.7 seconds left on the clock and a four point advantage. Sayers drained them both.
The Lions got the game back to within four, a solo drive to the basket from Robinson resulting in a layup and another time out called by Thomas. With thirteen seconds on the clock the Spencer stole the inbound and finished to close to within two points.
Daniel Norl would be fouled and against a cacophony of boos would make them both. Andre Lockhart closed the gap to within two once more but Norl, with ice in his veins, would kill Lions hopes of wrapping up the title on Easter Monday and put Cheshire in the box seat for post season play.