Riders revisited: 2013 Playoff Final

11 years ago, Leicester Riders crowned themselves British Basketball League treble winners for the first time in their history, beating the Newcastle Eagles in the 2013 Playoff Final.

The 2012-13 season would kickstart a decade of dominance for Britain’s oldest professional basketball club, where they would win 17 trophies in the coming years.

Here, we re-live the Playoff Final at Wembley Arena…

Setting the scene

Entering the 2012-13 season, the Newcastle Eagles had established themselves as the premiere team in British basketball. 

They completed the fourth quadruple in League history a year prior, and the first since they accomplished the same feat in 2006, led by MVP Joe Chapman. 

Chapman returned the following season, as did his supporting cast of Charles Smith, the soon to become League MVP in 2014-15, Darius Defoe who would go on to become the most decorated player in League history, and Player/Coach Fabulous Flournoy who had 18 pieces of British Basketball League silverware to his name. 

There was no doubt they were the team to beat going into the season. 

But of all the teams looking to knock the Eagles off their perch, the Riders were among the most likely. They had pushed the North Easterners all the way in the League, finishing one win behind them in the standings before losing to them in the Playoff Final to end the year. 

Andrew Sullivan in the Riders’ 2012 Playoff Final loss to the Newcastle Eagles.

Their roster featured former MVP with the Eagles Andrew Sullivan, who led them to their quadruple in 2006, and the new acquisitions of exciting young guard Jay Couisnard and experienced forward Anthony Rowe, the latter signing with the Riders midseason after playing four seasons with the Plymouth Raiders. 

The Riders had next. 

Riders take the torch

The promise they had shown in the previous season came into fruition in 2012-13. 

The country’s oldest professional basketball club, with two British Basketball League trophies to their name from a decade prior, established themselves as the League’s best. 

Led by young Head Coach Rob Paternostro in his fifth season coaching the team, who was named Ed Pericval Coach of the Year for the second time in his career, the Riders set about winning immediately. 

Rob Paternostro celebrating 100 British Basketball League career wins with Riders Managing Director Russell Levenston.

An MVP season from Hall of Famer Sullivan took the Riders to a Cup win, where they beat the Eagles in the Final with a 17 point performance from Couisnard, and the team went on to win the Championship five wins clear of the second-placed Eagles. 

Leicester made defence their calling card all season long, and finished the year with the second-best defence in League history. They had defensive difference makers up and down the roster, including Zaire Taylor and Couisnard in the backcourt and up-and-coming star Jamell Anderson on the wing. 

Three Riders ended up on the All-Defensive team at the end of the year- Sullivan, Couisnard and Taylor- but Couisnard thought it could have been more.

“I know we had three guys on the All-Defensive team, but I think that’s because they couldn’t have all five of us,” he said after the season.

To further mark their new found dominance over the League, the Riders swept Newcastle 4-0 in the season series on their way to the League win. 

The Riders were pipped to the Trophy, losing in the Final 71-69 to the Sheffield Sharks in dramatic fashion, but entered the postseason in search of a historic treble. 

Collision course 

The sides seemed destined to meet in the Playoff Final from the outset after finishing first and second in the League standings. 

“These are the two best teams in the League by a mile,” said London Lions Head Coach Vince Macaulay when asked about the sides. They proved as much.

The Riders engaged in a hard-fought first leg against the London Lions, where they escaped two point winners after finding themselves 14 points down in the tie.

But they took control of the second leg, led by 24 points from Rowe, to progress to the second round.

Rowe was pivotal in Leicester’s playoff run, scoring a team-high 18 points in the first leg of the semi finals against his former side, the Raiders. 

Anthony Rowe playing against the Durham Wildcats in the 2012-13 regular season.

The semi finals saw them sweep aside the Raiders by 40 points over the two legs, making it a professional run to the Final at Wembley Arena.  

All in all, it was a comfortable road to the Final for the Eagles, who dispatched the Sharks and Surrey United to meet the Riders at the summit once again. 

It was only right these sides should meet in the final showdown of the season, as they did the season prior. 

Final words

As the Playoff Final returned to Wembley Arena for the first time since 2002, Flournoy had a visible chip on his shoulder before the action began.

He reminisced in a pre-game interview about the last time he faced Leicester in this Arena- the 2001 Playoff Final where he suited up as a player for the Sheffield Sharks. 

He came out on the losing side all those years ago, and was in no mood to fall short this time around. 

“It’s fantastic being back after 12 years, but hopefully I’ll do the job in this game,” said a determined Flournoy. 

Macauley, on punditry, commented on a visibly fired up Flournoy: “Fab Flournoy is a really proud guy, and very successful as a coach.

“He will be absolutely burning inside that the Riders in particular have taken two of their trophies away from them, and tonight is an opportunity to reset that balance.”

Paternostro, in a seemingly more relaxed mood while clutching his Coach of the Year award, reflected on the year so far with pride.

Rob Paternostro collects his 2012-13 Ed Percival Coach of the Year award before the Final.

“I’ve been lucky to coach these guys this year. You always want to win the last game of your season, and we have the opportunity to go out as winners today.

“But whatever happens on the day I’ll be so proud of these guys and I’ve enjoyed competing with them. I’m excited about today.”

Riders bolt out the gate

The Riders started the game relaxed and composed, and the fixture began exactly how they would have wanted: slow, deliberate and low-scoring from the outset.

Rowe set the tone inside with a monster block on the driving Smith, and the Riders controlled the game with a narrow lead through the first period. 

Anderson, making a dream start, scored seven points in the opening quarter with relentless attacks to the rim. He sank an and-one finish against Smith to make it 20-9. 

Jamell Anderson finishes for two in the first quarter.

On the other end, wherever Smith turned he saw bodies, as he tried to generate some offence against the Riders’ historic defence. He continually forced the issue, but the interior defence of Rob Paternostro’s side saw shots sent away by Rowe, Anderson and Taylor. 

For the first time in the game, Sullivan found a rhythm, spelling trouble for the Eagles. He built the lead to 15 with multiple finishes at the rim, backing down Smith repeatedly. Smith had no answer throughout the first half to Sulivan’s post ability, and the MVP ran up the score. 

Eagles chip away

As the half came to a close, the Eagles forged a way back into the game. It was Kareem Maddox who snatched momentum by fighting to the free throw line, getting points on the board to cut it to single digits. 

This allowed Smith some isolation for the first time in the game, and he too found a way to the foul stripe after taking on Leicester’s Yorick Williams. 

Charles Smith makes an and-one play against Yorick Williams.

But in response, Williams put an end to the run with a finish at the rim, and Taylor blocked Smith next time up the floor. The half ended with the Riders leading 38-26. The game was playing out as the low-scoring affair the Riders wanted. 

“We’re really putting the effort in on defence and the glass,” said Anderson at the half. “We take pride in our defence, and today we’re showing that.”

Hanging in the balance

The Riders’ defence, still an immovable object out of the break, kept them in the lead as they couldn’t find the bottom of the bucket to start the third period. 

The Eagles, simply, had no answer for their size and length, and had no joy driving into the lane from buzzer-to-buzzer. 

They did cut the difference to seven emphatically, with Smith throwing up a lob pass which was thrown down two-handed by Defoe in a rim-rocking slam. But Sullivan quieted the noise of the Newcastle fans with a layup next time up the floor. 

The game seemed on a knife’s edge midway through the third, with neither side able to seize momentum which would turn the game on its head. Instead, they traded the buckets they could find in a defensive affair, and the difference swung from seven to nine. 

Zaire Taylor and Drew Sullivan run the pick and roll against Damon Huffman and Joe Ikhinmwin.

Riders seize initiative 

After a cagey phase of the game, it was the Riders who took control. The run was started by Couisnard at the rim, and finished by Sullivan who threw down a monster jam on the break to make the score 53-37. 

The highlights didn’t stop there for Leicester. Sullivan’s miss was followed by Anderson, who rose high for a putback slam to put the Riders in firm control going into the final quarter. 

Couisnard made another momentum play three minutes into the fourth with a contested triple late in the shot clock to send the Sea of Red in the crowd into raptures. Newcastle did make inroads, bringing it back to ten via Damon Huffman, but Leicester had built a platform to bring it home. 

Leicester Riders fans on their feet, appreciated by the bench.

Riders slam the door shut

The Riders fell back on their defence to see it out. They held the Eagles to seven points in the final six minutes of the game, keeping Newcastle at arm’s length as they had done wire-to-wire. 

There was no “moment”, no shot to end the game. Just an increasing inevitability, through the Riders defensive suffocation, that the Eagles were unable to mount a comeback. 

Anderson made the Riders’ final score with a minute left, and the game ended 67-57. 

“The greatest ever season, for the oldest team in British basketball, is going to have a silver and gold lining” was the call from Daniel Routledge on commentary. It was a homage to the Leicester Mercury headline following the Riders’ 2001 Cup win, which read “SILVER LINING”.

The final buzzer sounded, and the bench flooded the court in jubilance. 

Leicester Riders celebrating victory on the final buzzer.

Post game reaction

An emotional Paternostro dedicated the victory to his late grandmother after the game, who had passed away earlier in the week. 

“She was someone who taught me how to compete, and my guys really competed today.” he reflected post-game. 

“We’ve been committed to the defensive end of the floor, and it culminated in this today. All season it’s been about intensity and competitiveness for 40 minutes across all 94 feet.”

Final MVP, Sullivan, who logged 24 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds, echoed his Head Coach’s sentiment on the team’s competitive spirit and defensive mindset. 

Final MVP Drew Sullivan lifts the award.

“My teammates have been absolutely incredible. They haven’t been worried about trophies or titles. They have just wanted to win every single game. 

“We were upset about bad performances, win or lose. We take pride in playing every minute of every game to the best of our ability.”

An elated Rowe, who made his impact felt defensively and on the glass throughout, looked back to midseason where he signed with the team:

“I’m on cloud 9 right now. The first practice I went to this season, it just felt right.

“I think back to my mum, who always tells me to go with my heart, and I’m so glad I did that this season. We have some amazing British players, from our MVP Drew Sullivan to Jamell Anderson who was phenomenal today.

“The future is bright in British basketball.”

Moving forward

That season kick started one of the most dominant stretches of British basketball history. The Riders would go on to win 17 trophies in the next decade, including three trebles. 

It was just the beginning of the rivalry between these sides, who would go head-to-head in the biggest games in British basketball in the next ten years. 

The would go on to hoist 27 trophies between them, marking an era of fierce rivalry between the Eagles and Riders. 

2013 Playoff Final scorers

Leicester RidersNewcastle Eagles
Andrew Sullivan24Darius Defoe13
Jamell Anderson13Charles Smith12
Jay Couisnard8Kareem Maddox12
Zaire Taylor8Damon Huffman9
Yorick Williams 7Joseph Chapman8
Anthony Rowe 4Joe Ikhinmwin3
Jorge Calvo 2Fabulous Flournoy0
Pavol Losonsky2Anthony Martin0

The Riders are in Playoff action on Saturday May 4, hosting the Sheffield Sharks for Game Two of the opening round.

It’s a double-header for the Riders, whose men’s and women’s teams are playing back-to-back in their respective playoff games.

The first 1,200 fans through the door will receive a free “Dark Horse” t-shirt!

Get tickets here!