“Cinderella no more, champions today,” exclaimed Head Coach Billy Mims, after securing the Leicester Riders their first silverware in major competitions in 30 years.
23 years and 19 trophies later, the Riders’ 2001 NTL National Cup Final victory remains sweet in the memory of the fans who witnessed it.
To those who didn’t, it marks the first addition to a now stacked trophy cabinet, representing the renowned success of Britain’s oldest professional basketball club.
We take you back to the game, to reflect on the historic win.
Image credit: Mansoor Ahmed
20 years of “nearly”.
In the decades preceding the National Cup win, the Riders’ story was one of agonising near-misses.
They reached their first major final in 1980, falling short to a dominant Solent Stars. That was the theme for the Riders: They repeatedly came close, but never quite got the silverware.
They reached the Cup final in 1990, hoping to break their duck, but once again couldn’t get over the hump with an 88-81 loss to Sunderland.
The Riders followed up with a loss in the Trophy final in ’91, this time a heartbreaking three-point loss to Kingston – at the time, the closest Final in the competition’s history.
They had to wait until ‘half a decade for another shot at glory, this time reaching the British Basketball League Cup final.
But a cruel twist of fate saw star man Gene Waldron break his leg, and so too went Riders’ chances of winning. Thames Valley edged the Final by four points.
So entering Wembley Arena in 2001, Riders fans would have been forgiven for guarding their optimism cautiously, following 20 years of heartbreak in the biggest games.
Riders run to the final
The Riders entered the turn of the millennia with a fresh start. They returned to the place of their founding, Loughborough, to play their home fixtures at the Sir David Wallace Centre, and immediately found success.
Their run through the National Cup saw them push aside the Teesside Mohawks 100-102, fight through an overtime win against the Birmingham Bullets, and beat the Thames Valley Tigers 95-85 at the Sky Dome in Coventry.
Head Coach Billy Mims, who was appointed after his departure from the London Leopards, hoped a change of finals fortune could get them over the hump.
He was set to face his former club in the final, making the match-up all the more personal.
This was emphasised by the Leopards, who led by former Leicester coach Bob Donewald, refused to take part in the pre-game handshake.
The game became “about the bigger picture” from there, said Mims.
Despite Leicester starting the brightest, racking up 14 unanswered points in the first quarter to lead 24-11, London’s answer showed shades of the narrow shortcomings that had tortured the club for the past 20 years.
London, haunted by their own ghosts of finals past following defeat in the Cup Final a year prior, exploded going into halftime. A 10-1 run made it 45-38, the Riders surrendering a lead after a bright start.
In desperate need of some momentum going into the break, Ralph Blalock drained a three for the Riders, stemming the tide and cutting the deficit to a reasonable four points at halftime.
But the Leapords still held the advantage.
Fighting to the wire
The Riders’ Larry Johnson, also competing against his old club, ran the show in the third quarter.
He pulled the strings throughout, leading them to a 9-0 run to end the period and snatch back the lead.
The score swung back and forth until the finale. Blalock, heating up, inspired a 7-0 Leicester burst. The Leopard fought back with nine unanswered points, putting them ahead 78-81.
Johnson responded with a three-pointer in the corner to level again, the score 81-81 with seconds remaining.
Coming in clutch
The Riders turned to the hot hand to take a late advantage. Blalock drove to the rim, laying in a crucial bucket for his game-high 26th points of the affair.
The Leopards missed a crucial foul shot on the following play, and Karl Brown went to the line to take the most important free throw of his career.
He knocked down a crucial point, and London failed to get a shot off to tie or win, as the Riders secured the first major trophy in their history, winning 84-82.
The players, staff and fans erupted in the Sheffield Arena, and decades of anguish were released. The Riders had brought their first major silverware home.
Blalock was named Final MVP after his game leading, and game-winning, performance.
|Billy Singleton (c)
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