Main Image: London Lions Celebrate their Playoff Final victory. Photo Credit: British Basketball League
The London Lions made it a clean sweep for the second season in a row as they took home the fourth and final piece of silverware of the WBBL season with a 57-41 victory over the Leicester Riders in this weekend’s Playoff Final.
In a low scoring game by both teams’ standards (London averaged 95.6 ppg this season and Leicester 75 ppg), it was the Lions who got on the board first as Azania Stewart rolled to the basket and scored off a Holly Winterburn (11 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists) assist. Stewart, who had confirmed her retirement prior to today’s game, added in 5 rebounds, 3 assists and finished off an illustrious career with a 4th trophy in hand in front of friends and family in her hometown crowd. Subbing out of the game with 1:51 to go in the fourth and a comfortable 20 point lead for the Lions, Stewart received cheers and applause from the crowd and her teammates.
London headed into the second quarter up 19-10, Fiona O’Dwyer having led the way for Leicester in the first quarter with 5 points on her way to a double double of 10 points and 11 rebounds. The Riders went on a run to bring the game within 1 at 21-20 after an incredible turnaround jumper from Hannah Robb but London increased their lead to 8 to end the half as Katsiaryna Snytsina (11 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals) knocked down a 3 and then assisted Shequila Joseph (6 points and 9 rebounds) next time down the floor to close out the quarter.
London came out of halftime the stronger team as they held the Riders to 5 points in the quarter. MVP Ty Battle (8 points, 15 rebounds), was a menace on the glass grabbing 3 offensive boards in the 3rd. Battle, in her first season out of the University of Delaware, has made a quick start to her pro career averaging 10.8 pp on 56.2% shooting from the field (3rd in the WBBL) 5.5 rpg and 1.8 spg.
Stewart had high praise for her award winning team mate postgame who stepped up in leading scorer, Kiki Herbert- Harrigan’s absence (Herbert- Harrigan left the team to head to the USA for WNBA training camp.): “Ty has worked tremendously, I think (she’s) one of my favourite team mates this season… she comes in, works, she’s very solid, incredible, has never moaned, never talked about her minutes and what she’s done she just got better and better and I think tonight, wining MVP…was just the cherry on the top.”
The Lions closed out the game with a 15-13 fourth quarter as Winterburn dropped in 5 points on back to back baskets for London who celebrated on court as they completed the three-peat and tied the Sevenoaks Suns for the most wins in a Playoff Final.
Speaking after the win, Battle credited a whole team contribution from the squad: “I think it was a fun win…it was just a total team effort, everyone got on the floor just playing their role, and if it was the basket wasn’t going in, someone else stepped in or just got a rebound or got a steal I think that’s what put us all together.”
Postgame, as she reflected on an incredible career, Stewart, a 2012 Olympian, 2018 Commonwealth Games Silver Medalist with England and GB representative, spoke about her decision to retire, which she made at the start of the season and how the Lions one and only loss this season, to Caledonia in February, lit a fire under the team: “I think that was really a big momentum swing, to show that if we don’t come ready teams are able to beat us and it was more just like… ok we have to be ready and this is how difficult it is, so it was a special moment cos I hadn’t lost yet, so it hurt my feelings but what it did was ignite us to move forward and be better from then on.” After that 1 point 68-67 loss, the Lions wouldn’t taste defeat again, going unbeaten for the rest of their campaign.
For players, deciding when its the right time to step away from the court is hard but Stewart finished on a high. ” (At the start of the season) our goal was to go back to back and win four trophies again” which, as Stewart acknowledges is very difficult. “This was so special for me and I’m really happy and I’ve given a lot to the game but the games given a lot back to me and I know that my soul is full. I’ve really achieved so much and so I’m really happy to finish in London in front of my friends, in front of my family in front of my city. Its really a big thing for me.
Stewart has been a staple of British Basketball for her career, playing for England since she was 14 years old, and with a new generation coming up she believes the game is in good hands citing teammate Holly Winterburn and the Riders’ Kirsty Brown (7 points, 5 rebounds) and Hannah Robb (4 points, 1 rebound) :“The leagues’ just got better and better and stronger and stronger”.
Azania Stewart might have left the court for the last time but the legacy she leaves can be seen in the fan support, the record crowds and how things have changed since she was starting out: “The young ones coming up, there was never an Azania Stewart or a Chantelle Handy to look up to when I started basketball at 12/13 years old….and now… I sign signatures and I take photos with kids and there’s somebody to look up to, (someone) who they can aspire to be.”
From the Haringey Angels to Florida, Europe and Australia, playing at the highest levels of international Basketball and then back home in London, Stewart has helped pave the way for the next generation and her impact on court certainly won’t be forgotten.