Friday night saw the Riders fall 102-94 to the league-leading London Lions after a captivating game in the British Basketball League Championship.
Coach Rob Paternostro’s squad fought to the last buzzer and led mid-way through the second half, but clinical offense from Petar Božić’s side gave them their 13th win in 14 games.
The best player on the court for the Riders was tenacious shooting guard Caleb Asberry, who dropped 15 points, pulled down nine rebounds and snagged three steals in a complete display.
BBL ‘Team of the Week’ member Jaren Holmes top scored for the home side, dropping 18 points, including three of four from deep range. The wing forward also showed his ability to hit the open man, dishing eight assists on the night.
London’s roster quality showed in a big way, three players scoring over 20 points, Dante Grantham the pick of the bunch with a 22-point/11-rebound double-double.
The game started at a frenetic pace as both teams looked to use speed and ball movement to create easy buckets.
After a breathless first three minutes, the score sat at 12-9 in favour of London – the Lions looking in fine form but being matched by the Riders.
Miryne Thomas once again opened the Riders’ account, hitting two shots from the free throw line, followed by an emphatic two-handed dunk by Braelen Bridges who found space with a nice perimeter move.
A beautiful cut to the basket from Holmes was rewarded with a layup and Xavier Pinson brought the home faithful to its feet by hitting a nasty crossover on the experienced Jordan Taylor, before draining a three.
It didn’t take long before the Lions – who became the first British outfit to defeat Spanish opposition on Wednesday – showed their quality, Matt Morgan leading all scorers with 10 first quarter points.
Leicester’s depth was also showing its value, led by a fired-up captain in Kimbal Mackenzie, who hit a pair of ‘and one’ plays to peg the visitors back from an eight-point lead.
A corner three from veteran Connor Washington brought the Riders within three, and a premium quality quarter ended with the Lions holding a 29-26 lead.
If the first ten minutes started with a bang, the second quarter was the opposite.
Both teams found hitting buckets tough, and the vaunted Lions’ offense was struggling to get through the Riders’ ‘three-two’ zone defence.
Mackenzie continued to bring energy from the bench, feeding Bridges on consecutive plays for two quick buckets, and after a deep three from Holmes, Riders were within reach of a first lead of the game.
Once more, London showed their class and built another useful gap after a pair of threes from Connor Morgan, but like a marching band, the Riders kept moving forwards and bringing the noise.
The loudest moment of the night came with the first half buzzer ready to sound, as Asberry pilfered the ball and slammed it home to record his tenth point and bring the Riders within three.
An entertaining first 20 concluded with London leading 51-48 and all to play for.
The second half commenced with the home crowd in full voice, and the back-and-forth basketball didn’t disappoint.
London were showing a metronomic ability to get to the foul line and hit at a clip of over 90%, but the intensity from the Riders was rattling the league leaders.
Bridges was showing his skills inside, hitting on a couple of smooth post moves, but the defence of Asberry was ‘stealing’ the show.
The Texan was all over the court, picking pockets, smashing home dunks and showing hustle on the offensive glass – his excellent play helping the Riders to a narrow third quarter lead.
Not to be outdone, the Riders’ bench also flashed, Samuel Idowu demonstrating soft hands to feed a cutting Thomas, and when Mackenzie dropped yet another ‘and one’ coupled with a deep three, the Morningside was rocking.
As good as the Riders were playing, the Lions matched them, ending the quarter with an easy layup from a missed free throw to lead 74-72.
The final ten minutes brought with it a tense atmosphere, but consecutive shots from downtown by Holmes and Mackenzie saw the home fans on their feet once more.
The Lions’ offense would not be denied however, as they hit three shots in a row to take a five-point lead.
Gabe Olaseni and Grantham were providing most of the visitors’ threat, showing strength and accuracy inside to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
Coach Paternostro’s young squad showed commendable endeavour and fight during the final five minutes, but big plays from Holmes and Thomas weren’t enough to reel last season’s champions in.
The final buzzer sounded, and the Lions returned to the capital after possibly the toughest game of their campaign so far.