LIONS can hold their heads high after a weekend that saw them beat last season’s champions and only narrowly lose out to the side now leading the way this year.
Mike New’s men enjoyed a second away win of the BBL Championship campaign when they saw off the once mighty Mersey Tigers 87-80 in Liverpool on Friday night before going down to Newcastle Eagles by just five points at the Lions Arena on Sunday.
Despite almost completing a clean sweep of honours last season – picking up the BBL Trophy, Play-off title and Championship crown – Tigers are a different side this season and tasted defeat for the ninth time in 11 league outings as Howard Crawford led Lions to a morale-boosting victory after back-to-back defeats.
However, Lions fell agonisingly short of making it a very memorable weekend as Newcastle edged a thrilling encounter 96-91 – their second win of the season against New’s troops after notching up 100 points in the north east in November.
Sunday’s victory was Eagles’ 11th in 12 league matches as they look big favourites to return to dominating the British Basketball scene after a disappointing 2010/11 season by their standards, with Tigers winning everything but the BBL Cup.
Lions certainly ran them close though, at least until the final period when the quality of Charles Smith eventually proved to be the difference. He opened the scoring, but Lions picked themselves up and bagged 15 of the next 21 points, including five points from Demarius Bolds to make it 15-8.
The Eagles were not to be outdone however, as they started to close the gap throughout the remainder of the period and both teams ended the opening stanza locked together at 27-27.
In the second period the hosts quickly earned a six point lead at 40-34 midway through, but Eagles broke the game open with a 15-4 run to take the score out to 44-49 before holding their advantage at 48-54 come half time.
In the second half they continued to extend their lead thanks to a 10-0 burst to take the score out to 54-73, but a 12-2 finish to the third quarter from Lions trimmed the deficit to nine points at 66-75 heading into the final stanza.
In the final quarter Eagles extended their lead to 13 points at 77-90 midway through, but Lions were not to be outdone as they clawed their way back into the contest thanks to a 11-4 burst to get to within six points at 88-94 with 1m 30s left.
But a pair of free-throws from Smith with 23 seconds remaining took the score out to 88-96, and despite a Bolds three-pointer with nine seconds remaining, the visitors held on for the victory to keep themselves at the top of the pile.
Twenty points from Smith saw him pick up a team-high points total for the Eagles, but it was Bolds who was the main man in the contest as he netted an impressive 29 points for Lions.
It was a superb fourth quarter that saw Lions win in Liverpool two days earlier as Crawford led with 20 points, while Bolds scored some crucial baskets on his way to 18. Kris Douse led Tigers, and all scorers, with 34 points.
Lions edged the first half and didn’t trail after an early Nuno Pedroso three-pointer gave them a 2-5 lead in the opening exchanges. Tigers tied the game at 7, 9 and 11 but could not get in front and were soon hit by a 10-2 burst from their visitors, including four Daniel Northern points giving the Lions a 13-21 lead. But Tigers hit back to tie the game at 21 after the first 10 minutes.
Lions got going again in the second stanza with the first two baskets and a Bolds three-pointer as they went on to take the second sessions 47-43, before maintaining a slender lead at 66-61 going into the final period.
And Tigers failed to draw themselves level in the last 10 minutes, despite actually getting to within a single point on a couple of occasions as Adrien Sturt and Stefan Gill grabbed some key baskets which eventually proved the difference.