The Riders booked their place in the BBL Playoff final, beating the Bristol Flyers 159-156 over two legs.
Entering the leg up seven after winning 84-77 in Bristol, the Riders needed only to lose by six or less to progress. Bristol won the second leg 79-75, Leicester hanging on to win it.
They came back from down five in the fourth to win it, flexing their championship pedigree to get over the hump. Marc Loving proved the hero, scoring a team-high 18 points, including two late free throws to win it.
By no means was it easy. The Flyers’ defence held the Riders to 41% from the floor, and their big names showed out. Big man Malcolm Delpeche bossed the boards with 23 points and eight rebounds to hand Leicester just their second playoff loss since 2016.
But the hosts had enough over two legs, and they earned the right to fight for back-to-back playoff titles.
Carrington Love got the Riders going, making their first three field goals to get the team in rhythm. The start was vital to setting the tone of the game, and a 9-5 Riders’ start settled them into it.
They controlled the early stages from there. Loving found form to score six straight, leading Leicester through the first, which ended 21-18 in their favour.
Both offences stalled in the second, but Bristol found their way onto the score sheet to take the lead four minutes in. Delpeche’s putback made it 25-23 to the visitors, forcing a Leicester timeout.
The response was immediate. Zach Jackson’s three retook the lead in a back-and-forth end to the half. But Bristol’s Tevin Olison’s three ended it, the Flyers up two going into the locker rooms.
They tied the fixture quickly in the third period, starting 5-0. The Bristol momentum set up a tense third quarter as the sides battled for control of the semi-final. And it was the Flyers who took it, snatching the lead with a 7-0 run.
Out of a Riders’ timeout, Mackenzie’s three gave the Riders much-needed points. It stemmed the tide, and the teams entered the fourth with everything in the balance.
The Riders, after falling down five over two legs to start the fourth, fought back hard. They tied it through their captain, who trailed a fastbreak to finish in close.
The sides exchanged blows in the clutch, neither backing down. But it was Leicester who found late form. Their big three, Patrick Whelan, Marc Loving and Jackson, hit huge baskets down the stretch to edge a lead.
Delpeche’s fierce slam with nine seconds on the clock meant the game came down to free throws. Loving, ice in his veins, made both making it a three-point tie. Jelani Watson-Gayle, contested brilliantly by Jackson, missed his attempt from deep, sending the Riders to the final.
The final will be played in London’s O2 Arena, and the opponent will be decided in tomorrow’s semi-final between the London Lions and the Cheshire Phoenix.