The Riders deservedly reached the British Basketball League Trophy semi-finals tonight after a clinical 101-85 road victory over the Seriös Group Newcastle Eagles.
Rob Paternostro utilised his squad’s depth perfectly, taking advantage of the depleted Eagles roster that is plagued with the injury bug.
Leicester’s bench contributed an impressive 40 points, led by big man Samuel Idowu who dropped 17 points in a display that perfectly demonstrates what he brings from the sideline.
Captain Kimbal Mackenzie also proved he can still be the main man under pressure, top-scoring with 22 points, pulling down six rebounds and dishing out eight assists.
TJ Lall and new man Duke Shelton also showed nice flashes, Lall hitting his customary near double-double going 14 and eight, with Shelton – a former Eagle – protecting the rim with some authoritative blocks.
Newcastle’s shortened rotation showed plenty of endeavour, the enigmatic Tajh Green mixing up trey-balls with rim-rattling dunks, and Larry Austin Jr displayed his rabid competitiveness on both ends of the court.
In the end, the Riders’ strength in depth was too much for the home side, and the win sees Leicester travelling to the Utilita Arena in Birmingham for the Trophy Finals Weekend.
As is often the case in the Vertu Motors cauldron, Newcastle hit the ground running, crashing out of the locker room to hit seven unanswered points in the first minute.
A Green triple kicked things off, followed by an Austin Jr layup and capped with a thunderous dunk from Newcastle’s power forward (11 first-half points).
A quick timeout was taken by Paternostro and his decision bore immediate fruit as Mackenzie pulled up for a three after causing Jordan Johnson to slip.
Both teams suddenly got hot, with every Eagles bucket being matched by the Riders.
Leicester’s captain got his second bucket with a nice layup, then Mo Walker found rare space beyond the arc to hit a triple of his own.
The net kept swishing as Teddy Allen, Miryne Thomas and Jaren Holmes all found the hot hand. Then Idowu stepped onto the court.
The second-unit star instantly made his presence felt, driving the Riders forward with aggression on both ends of the court.
The big man opened his account with a quick hit at the rim, bettering that finish with an ‘and one’ play before pulling up from three and showing his range. Idowu’s 12 first half points were a just reward for his impact from the bench.
The hot streak saw the Riders come back from the early deficit, and after taking their first lead of the game with a Thomas trey, pulled ahead of the home side.
Great defence and a lethal touch in transition saw the Riders hit 37 first quarter points and boasting a comfortable lead.
The second ten minutes told a slightly different story, as both teams locked down on defence, forcing multiple runs of missed shots.
The turnover bug also plagued the Riders, who ended the first half with ten giveaways to the Eagles’ four.
The quarter began with a much-needed Rickey McGill bucket, answered by ‘Buckets’ Allen after a nicely timed block from Lall.
Allen soon added to his total and – with Idowu and Shelton protecting the rim diligently – the lead remained a significant one.
However, galvanised by Green and Johnson, the Eagles started slowly crawling back into the game.
The lead eventually cut to single-figures and, despite Allen hitting picturesque floaters and making a one-handed offensive rebound to transition into a layup, the Eagles were back within six.
The crowd got to their feet after the 39-year-old Darius Defoe stole the ball and embarked upon a fast break that belied his years, but Lall immediately settled things down with an athletic ‘and one’ play.
The entertaining half wound down with the Riders in front, 55-49.
Leicester started the crucial second half in great fashion, showing quick hands on defence which was rewarded with a pull up and pop triple from Thomas.
The Eagles were displaying a fighting spirit, but after Green had to sit down for his third personal foul, a Mackenzie running triple saw Leicester breach 60 points.
The three was soon answered by Johnson though, and the tension in the building began to hang heavy.
One thing that remained consistent was the Riders’ protection at the rim, and during a prolonged period of missed shots and mistakes, solid defensive play in the paint kept the road team ahead.
Leicester’s front court defence was forcing Newcastle to take several ill-advised deep threes, and the lead stretched back out to 11 following a Mackenzie fast break layup and physical work on the offensive boards by Idowu.
The lead continued to advance after ice cold back-to-back threes from Idowu and Mackenzie, the latter hitting his 20th point of the night.
The quarter ended with the Riders in control but needing to keep their foot on the gas with the six-man Eagles rotation looking leggy.
Now, it was only ten minutes between the teams and a place in the semi-finals.
Yet again, the Riders shot into the quarter with a three, Lall pulling up from the top of the arc and stringing home a beautiful bucket.
Green ran the floor to dunk home a statement of defiance and to give the bumper home crowd something to shout about, but with the Riders slowing things down and sitting on a 19-point lead, the result appeared decided.
The game then started to reflect the spice seen in previous meetings between the two teams this season, and a period of heavy fouling resulted in Johnson having to take a seat.
The Riders’ rode their composure to the final whistle, capping off an excellent League Trophy group stage with a terrific performance on the road.
It remains unclear who the Riders will face in Birmingham, as the fate of Group A remains undecided.
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