LIONS chief executive Vince Macaulay says his side need another three British Basketball League victories to make this season’s play-offs – after they dropped out of the top eight at the weekend.
Lions gave table toppers Newcastle Eagles a good run for their money for a third time this campaign on Friday night, but again came up just short as they lost 101-92 in the north east.
That defeat, coupled with two shock wins for Cheshire Jets against Guildford Heat and Sheffield Sharks, means Lions go into the last month of the season in ninth and outside the play-off places.
However, with three of their last five games coming at home – starting with the visit of Plymouth Raiders on Friday night – Macaulay believes his side are still favourites to win the race for eighth place.
“There’s no hiding from the fact that we have struggled lately,” he said. “But I think three more wins should be enough to make the play-offs and probably give us another trip to Newcastle.
“We can beat anyone on our day, but can also lose to anyone on another. We went up to Newcastle and tried a few different things and it seemed to work.
“Now the important thing is that we first beat Plymouth and then Cheshire. Beating them would be like winning two games because we’d then have a better head-to-head record against Jets.”
Defeat to Newcastle was Lions’ 10th from their last 11 Championship games, and Macaulay has openly admitted that the team have struggled to put the huge disappointment of losing to Plymouth in the semi-final of the BBL Trophy behind them.
That loss in early February came after the side’s best run of the season – which included an agonisingly close five-point defeat to Eagles – and Macaulay thinks beating Plymouth in their first meeting since that semi-final second leg will put the heartbreak behind them.
“Plymouth are in good form but they are also still hurting from being beaten by Newcastle in the Trophy final – after also losing to them in the BBL Cup final earlier in the season,” said Macaulay.
“We remember what happened down there in the semi-final and we want to beat them. We know we have a strong team – we average 86 points per game but concede 90 – so we know what we have to do.
“Linford Christie once said that you only win by crossing the finish line and that’s what we haven’t done enough.”
Newcastle veteran Charles Smith was once again the difference between the two sides on Friday night as he scored 28 points to keep his side four points clear of Worcester Wolves at the top of the standings.
Demarius Bolds and Daniel Northern led the visitors with 20 points – with the latter adding a game high 13 rebounds.
The two teams traded baskets early on up to a 10-10 tie after Bolds had hit a three-pointer for Lions. But Eagles then went 11-4 – including five points for Joe Chapman and a Paul Gause three to give the hosts a 21-14 advantage.
Eagles held the lead through to 29-20 at the end of the opening 10 minutes as Smith netted six points inside the final two to put his team in control.
But Lions took control of the second quarter as they nullified Eagles’ threat, with the team sharing just 11 points in the first six minutes, until Smith’s score put Eagles’ lead into double-figures for the first time at 36-26.
Things got a bit messy for Lions with back-to-back technical fouls called on Bolds and Northern, leading to an 8-0 home run. However, Lions responded well by scoring the final four points of the period to see the sides head to the locker rooms at 46-32.
The second half would see Lions net a whopping 60 points as the away side battered Eagles under the basket with their superior strength through Justin Dobbins and Northern.
Deep into the third quarter with three and a half minutes to go, Lions reduced the deficit further to make it 66-55 after Northern’s basket. But Eagles held their nerve, epitomised by Thomson’s three on the buzzer which pushed their lead back out to 76-61.
That late third quarter flurry from the home side wasn’t enough to deflate the visitors, despite Eagles soon extending the lead to its peak at 21 (84-63) after another Thomson score, and the hosts looked to be cruising at 88-70 heading into the final five minutes.
But they had to withstand one last push from Lions, who hit them with an 11-4 run that saw Nuno Pedroso score five straight points.
It would get as close as 96-88 thanks to pair of Northern free-throws, but an injury to Dobbins – which delayed the game for 10 minutes – broke the Lions rhythm and Eagles saw the game home from the free-throw line to finish 101-92 winners.
After a trip to a Newcastle hospital, Dobbins’ injury wasn’t as bad as feared and Macaulay now rates him as 50-50 to feature against Plymouth on Friday night.
And the Lions chief was keen to take the positives from the game as his side restricted the champions-elect to a third narrow victory of the campaign, having previously held their own in 100-88 and 96-91 defeats, most recently in January.
“If we make the play-offs then it looks like we will have to play them again, but we don’t mind that,” said Macaulay.
“We tried some new things but I can’t go into detail because I don’t want them to know about it. It obviously worked.”
Indeed, Newcastle suffered only their third defeat of the season two days later when they lost 85-77 at Glasgow Rocks.
However, it would take a disastrous collapse for them to not claim their fifth Championship title in four years. They don’t do so well in the play-offs though, losing in the semi-finals for the last two seasons.