Few have stepped up like Samuel Idowu for the Riders on their British Basketball League Trophy run.
The big man has averaged 13.8 points per game to help the team to the Final Four, the second most on the team, and exploded for 12 points in the first quarter against the Newcastle Eagles to steady the nerves after an 0-7 start for Leicester.
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Idowu has battled back from injury for the last two seasons to get to where he is today, and he’s relishing the challenge.
“The Trophy is something to really compete for,” he said. “It ups the stakes, mentally and physically, and it’s something I’ve been taking seriously. We have a chance to win with the team that we’ve been building, so we’ve all been locked in.
“My body has been feeling good. It’s finally feeling normal after recovering from an injury for two seasons. I’m not overthinking any decisions on the court and playing how I used to play.
“I feel 100% because I have confidence in my knee again. It doesn’t hold me back from doing what I want to be doing out there when jumping or running, as it did at the start of the season. I’m where I wanted to be when I started my rehab.”
Leicester locked in
The Riders have upped their level for the Trophy and went 3-1 through the group phase. Their loss was to the League-leading London Lions, and their three wins came in dominant fashion.
“Our mindset was to win every group game. We didn’t play well in London- we didn’t shoot it well and turned the ball over too much- but for the other games, we handled business.
“I’m proud of the statement we made. We tried to jump out the gate early, and we did a good job of grabbing those wins to get through to the Final Four.”
In front of a raucous home crowd in a win-or-go-home environment, it was important to start quickly in Newcastle and keep the crowd out of the game. Former Eagle Duke Shelton said as much beforehand in his preview of the fixture:
“Everybody is going to be up for the game, and we know it’s going to be rowdy in there. The key is to set the tone early, throwing the first punch and take it from there.”- Duke Shelton before the Riders faced the Newcastle Eagles.
But the Riders failed to do so, and the Eagles game flew out the blocks and forced them to dig themselves out of a hole.
Leicester showed poise and composure, fought back and won in commanding fashion. Idowu thought it said a lot about the team’s strong mentality.
“Being down early against Newcastle showed growth for us. Coach called a timeout, and we knew it would be a game of runs- it always is against them. We just had to stay poised and play our game for the full 40 minutes.
“Just because we went down in the first two minutes didn’t mean we needed to panic. We weren’t down on ourselves. At that point, the confidence throughout the team was there to come back and compete.”
Defence wins championships
After a difficult start to the season, the Riders have hit their stride at the right time as they go for silverware. Idowu discussed the secret to Leicester’s recent success.
“We’ve cleaned up smaller mistakes that plagued us at the start of the season and paid attention to detail. We’re also able to adjust at halftime when we need to fix something. We take pride in our ability to do that going into the second half.
“We’re taking defence personally. That’s from practice to in the games. We’re prideful in our efforts to get stops, so we’re happy to see it translate to the games. If we stay competitive, we’ll get results.
“Our rebounding especially has improved throughout the year, and we know how much that can control the game.”
Chemistry with new teammates
The Riders have seen an improvement in their performances since the addition of star guard Teddy Allen and Idowu’s frontcourt teammate Shelton, who have complimented Idowu’s game and seen him thrive.
“Teddy and I have a great connection on the court, especially in the pick and roll, which has led to a lot of dunks for me.
“He reads the floor really well and sees openings to get me the ball. He’s been great for us, and we’ve found a way to integrate him into our offence. The energy has definitely changed since he arrived.”
Shelton, in particular, is a player that Head Coach Rob Paternostro expects to benefit Idowu’s game.
“Sam’s athleticism on the defensive end has been important,” said Paternostro. “He’s a great teammate, and he’s a guy that plays with a passion out there.
“That can really lift the players around him. Now, playing with Duke, his versatility will be on display even more, because he’ll be able to step outside and hurt teams from inside and out.”
Idowu seconded his coach, adding how much they complement each other’s game and personalities.
“Duke is an immediate energy guy, and he has contributed in a big way. I don’t see anything negative about him being out there. He’s a great rebounder and really athletic.
“I enjoy playing with him. We communicate really well together and match each other’s energy, and it comes naturally between us. I think that’s helped him adjust at the perfect time going into the Final Four.”
Ready for the big stage
Should the Riders progress on Saturday against the Cheshire Phoenix, it will be Idowu’s first major final as a professional.
As a rookie, playing in the Netherlands for LWD Basket, he made the final of a domestic competition, but it was called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This makes the potential of a final all the more exciting.
“I’m looking forward to going to Birmingham. I’ve heard it’s a great city and a great atmosphere. I can’t wait.
“I’ve played in a couple of big arenas and in knockout games in the conference tournament at the end of college seasons. I’m looking forward to embracing an atmosphere like that again.”
Getting one back against Cheshire
But before then, the Riders have to beat a hot Cheshire team, who are one game behind second in the Championship standings and have beaten the Riders three times already this season.
Idowu laid out the keys to success.
“The key for us is to keep doing what we’ve been doing. When we’ve played them we’ve had a different roster and played a different style of basketball, so we’re looking forward to facing them again.
“I’m excited to see the intensity- ours is going to be through the roof knowing we’ve lost to them three times already. We definitely have a chip on our shoulders. We’ve been waiting for this, and we’re hungry for it. We’re not trying to lose them a fourth time when it matters most.”
The moment means everything to Idowu, who has fought to be out of the court in the first place. That’s not lost on him.
“I’ve been through so much in the past two years, so win or lose, I’m grateful for how far I’ve come. I thank god that I’m still able to play the game that I love professionally.
“For everything I’ve gone from recovering from injuries and watching from the sideline to potentially winning a trophy, which would be an incredible feeling.”
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