Playoff semi-final preview: Leicester Riders at London Lions

Leicester Riders are a game away from the Playoff Final at the O2 Arena. Standing in their way: the undefeated, EuroCup champion London Lions, looking for their third-straight clean sweep. 

Here’s how the playoff semi-final is shaping up.

Last time out

The Riders were forced to battle back in the quarter-finals to beat the Essex Rebels in the clutch. A slow start at the Mattioli Arena saw Leicester down as much as 21, but fought back behind Taylor O’Brien’s 21 points and 17 rebounds. 

Leicester’s biggest lead of the night was two points- their winning margin at the end of the game. Once the Riders were back in it in the fourth, Shahd Abboud took over with big shots as the hosts vanquished their first playoff foe. 

It was a gutsy win, as the Riders dug deep, stemmed the Rebels momentum and slowly climbed back into it over three quarters. They’ll take confidence from their late form into the game against London. 

Record-breaking O’Brien

Leading the team in the playoff opener followed the season trend for Riders’ star guard Taylor O’Brien, who was named to the British Basketball League Team of the Year this week.

READ MORE: Taylor O’Brien named to the Women’s British Basketball League Team of the Year

The rookie American broke the Riders’ single-season scoring record this year, surpassing Oceana Hamilton with 328 points. 

O’Brien is lightning fast from the backcourt, attacking the rim relentlessly from wire-to-wire. She runs the pick-and-roll effectively to get her moving down hill, and her determination and hustle gets her on the offensive glass for second chance points. 

She’ll attack the heart of the Lions’ defence all night long at the Copper Box, attempting to help the Riders to their second-straight visit to the O2 Arena. 

Lions’ season

The Lions, last season’s quadruple winners, are yet to be defeated in the British Basketball League this year. They won the League with a  20-0 record, and won the Trophy in January after facing the Rebels in the Final. 

However, key players departed to the WNBA ahead of the Lions’ playoff run, including Karlie Samuelson, Temi Fagbenle, Megan Gustafson and Shey Peddy. Samuelson and Gustafson were the Lions’ two leading scorers on the season, the latter winning the Trophy Final MVP. 

The adjustment to the departures was felt in their playoff opener, despite confidently putting away the Nottingham Wildcats. The Lions, who averaged 98 points per game over the season, mustered only 80 against Nottingham, winning by 10 on the final buzzer.

Compared to the Lions’ 140-42 and 105-49 wins against the Wildcats earlier in the year, the win was underwhelming as they felt the effects of losing their leading scorers. 

One to watch

Holly Winterburn

13.5 points, 4.4 assists, 60.8 FG%, 52.1% 3PT%

Remaining on their roster, however, is Holly Winterburn, who arrived on the European stage for this season. She hit the shot of the EuroCup final, her game-winning three which was dubbed the biggest shot in British basketball history against Besiktas. 

Her season can be defined by more than that single three, however. The former Riders led the League in three point percentage, knocking down a red hot 52.1% of her looks from deep, and hitting on 60.8% of her field goals. 

Winterburn played once against the Riders this season, but didn’t make her typical scoring impact with only 8 points. But she showed her ability to affect the game in multiple facets, finishing with 6 assists. 

Expect Winterburn to show up in the biggest moments should this one be close late. 

Where to watch

The game will be shown live on the Women’s British Basketball League YouTube channel, tipping off at 4:30 pm.