IT WAS a weekend of positives and negatives for Lions – but ultimately two defeats as they lost ground in their hunt for a British Basketball League top four finish this season.
Mike New’s men took on two of the Championship’s top three, but despite running arch rivals Leicester Riders and Worcester Wolves close, they were let with nothing to show for their efforts, seeing them drop a place to seventh in the table before another tough weekend against the two sides immediately above them.
One man particularly unfortunate for Lions was Demarius Bolds – the BBL’s leading scorer was in inspired form at the weekend, scoring a total of 72 points in his side’s last second 99-96 defeat to Leicester and 94-86 loss at Worcester.
The American certainly didn’t deserve to be on the losing side on either night, and the fact that Lions’ heartbreaking home defeat to Riders will go down as a BBL classic will be of no consolation to him, with the east Midlands side now edging encounters between the two rivals this season by three games to two.
Lions had dominated the majority of the game at the Lions Arena until, with the game tied at 96, influential Cameron Rundles drained a three pointer with just four seconds to go to give Riders the lead.
Lions then watched a last gasp three point attempt from Robert Youngblood bounce off the inside of the rim – cuing scenes of equal jubilation and despair from the two sets of fans who had helped make it a memorable Friday night.
Earlier in the game the two sides had traded baskets for much of the opening quarter, but it was the home side who opened up an early lead as they led 27-22. But five points from Rundles – with a Youngblood basket sandwiched between – helped Lions into a two-point lead at 29-27 at the end of the first quarter.
In the second the sides continued to trade blows but a Stefan Gill three pointer took the score out to 48-39 with three minutes remaining, but Riders bagged the next six points to trim the deficit back to just three at 48-45.
Lions kept the visitors’ comeback at bay as they headed into the locker rooms leading by five points at 56-51 at the half after a long range Rundles score on the buzzer – his long-range accuracy would prove significant on the night.
The second half saw Bolds really turn on the style, scoring at will on either side of the floor – long range and with dunks, while notching up some vital steals in the process.
It was Lions who kept their noses in front as they opened up a six point advantage at 75-69, Daniel Northern followed suit for the hosts and his six dunks on his way to a fantastic 23 point, 13 rebound and four block outing was as dominant a force as any in the game.
But four points from Rundles to end the period helped the visitors close the deficit to just two points at 75-73 heading into the final stanza.
The tension mounted even more in the fourth period as both teams slugged it out like prize fighters – a 9-0 opening to the quarter handed Riders a 75-82 lead, but Lions simply moved up the gears and wrestled the lead back.
Three point scores from Brad Wierzibicki and Rundles replied to the same from Lions’ Gill and Bolds, and at 96 apiece the fireworks really took off. Bolds missed a three to give his side the lead and Rundles hit the match-winning basket, but only after that agonising Youngblood miss.
Bolds led all the scorers with an incredible 39-point haul for Lions, while Rundles almost matched him as he netted 30 points for Riders on their way to two more league points.
Bolds leads the BBL scoring and steal statistics this season – his 461 points to date earning him countless plaudits – but unfortunately the rest of his side failed to repeat their level of performance the following night when Lions went to Worcester.
The first quarter had been tight right up until 7-7 before Wolves hit a purple patch, closing out the period to lead 24-12.
But in the second quarter Lions shrugged off tiredness to shut down Wolves’ potent offence as Northern and Bolds set upon the home team. Gill and Youngblood combined well and the visitors hit 16 of the first 18 points in the quarter to turn things around – equalling the first period score to tie the game at 36 all.
Wolves made the first move in the third quarter, moving 45-38 in front and then increasing their advantage further to 59-51 after free-throws by Tommy Freeman, but Lions weren’t quite done yet and Bolds responded majestically on his way to 33 points on the night.
Then Northern slammed and the Lions rallied to net the last six points of the period to make it a one-shot game heading into the final quarter.
There was a sense of déjà vu when Lions looked done at 81-72 with just two minutes of the game remaining, but again they fought really hard to recover and set up a thrilling finale.
Three pointers by Gill and Pedroso cut the gap to just 88-86 with barely 30 seconds remaining, but the home side held their nerve to score the last six points of the contest to take the victory, leaving Lions with nothing to show for two good performances.
If they are able to match that level this weekend then wins will surely follow – Lions travel to sixth placed Sheffield Sharks this Friday night before they entertain fifth in the table Glasgow Rocks at the Lions Arena on Sunday.
>> Following their weekend defeats, Lions have moved to shake-up their squad with Howard Crawford released and 6ft 8in forward Justin Dobbins joining the ranks.
The American joins after being recently let go by Sheffield. He is in his second season in the BBL after playing with Worcester Wolves last term where he averaged an impressive 18 points and eight rebounds.
Crawford is said to be joining a club in Finland. Coach new thanked him for his efforts in Milton Keynes and is excited by his newest recruit, who ironically will be making his Lions debut against his old club on Friday.
New said: “We would firstly like to thank Howard for what he has done for us this season. He is extremely talented but we just needed a little more aggression under the basket and during games, I’m sure he will continue to progress in his career.
“As far as Justin is concerned, he is a very bouncy forward/centre. He’s a dominating player inside and will complement Daniel Northern extremely well.”