Saturday evening sees the Riders attempting to claim their most important win of the season as they take on the Cheshire Phoenix in the British Basketball League Trophy semi-final.
Rob Paternostro’s young squad will take the trip to Birmingham to face the Group A winners under the lights of the Utilita Arena.
Leicester Riders vs Cheshire Phoenix
Utilita Arena, Birmingham
Saturday, January 27, 6:00pm
Riders’ Road to the Semis
The Riders’ journey to the final weekend of the Trophy initially looked tough, placed in Group B with the London Lions, Seriös Group Newcastle Eagles, Bristol Flyers, and Manchester Giants – all of whom have scored wins over Leicester this season.
However, with a renewed focus on defence and the seamless introduction of mid-season signings, the Riders finished the group stage with a 3-1 record to finish second behind the Lions.
The Trophy season began on January 5 with the visit of the Flyers to the Morningside Arena, confident after defeating Leicester on their home court in the Championship just a week prior.
The Riders learned from the previous contest that limiting big man Brad Greene’s effectiveness on the offensive glass was key to victory, and so they did, outboarding the visitors 45-36, led by a physical showing from Samuel Idowu, who bagged 14 rebounds.
The second-unit power forward backed up his glass-eating with 15 points for a maiden double-double, only bested by a spectacular 30-point night from Teddy ‘Buckets’ Allen.
The CEBL MVP showed against the Flyers that he isn’t just a dominant scorer – he can dish an assist, use his 6’6” frame to grab rebounds and make life tough in perimeter defence.
The Riders hit the ground running with a 21-point win, and despite losing 89-74 to the London juggernaut, carried moment into a Wednesday-night tilt against the exciting Manchester Giants.
Paternostro knew that a win would put pressure on both the Flyers and the Eagles playing later that week, and with the Giants’ leaky defence and lack of Jamell Anderson, the Riders’ coach sent his team onto the floor to score early and often.
The players responded, buoying the home crowd with 59 first-half points and a double-digit lead going into halftime. The Giants threatened a comeback in the third quarter behind Nick Lewis’ 17, but it proved to be a false dawn after a 29-point fourth quarter from the Riders saw them to a 104-88 win.
The team win treated fans to several excellent performances, but the pairing of Miryne Thomas and TJ Lall stood out from the crowd.
Athletic big Thomas hit a near triple-double, rattling the rim for 16 points, collecting nine boards and even laying on eight assists for his team.
Lall also stuffed the stat sheets in 19 minutes from the bench, blocking shots on defence as well as bagging 19 points at the other end in an efficient display.
Sitting at 2-1 and in prime position to make the ‘Finals Weekend’, the Riders faced a must-win battle in Newcastle’s Vertu Motors Arena.
Facing the prospect of crashing out of the Trophy with a loss, Paternostro galvanised his squad throughout the night which inspired them to put on a fantastic showing.
After a back-and-forth game of scoring runs, the Riders rose over the typically raucous Newcastle atmosphere to earn a 101-85 win, led by ‘Team of the Week’ point guard, Kimbal Mackenzie (22 points, 6 rebounds, 8 assists).
Phoenix’s Road to the Semis
After a surprisingly bright first half of the season, Cheshire entered Group A of the League Trophy as favourites to progress through.
The unexpected pressure didn’t appear to tell on Ben Thomas’ squad though, as they remained unbeaten through group play and came top with a perfect record.
The trickiest game of Cheshire’s Trophy campaign came in Round One with a long trip north to face the in-form Caledonia Gladiators.
The two teams often play each other tight, and January 5 was no different, with the scores level on points after four quarters and overtime needed to decide the winner.
With a 100-97 lead in the final minute, Cheshire missed a couple of free throws to give the home side a chance to tie the game at the overtime buzzer.
Luckily for the Phoenix, Clifton Moore Jr’s three-pointer missed the mark and Cheshire could ride the wave of a late win into the upcoming rounds.
As he has been throughout January, free-scoring forward Cam Christon made the difference for the Phoenix, bringing 18-points off the bench on an 80% shooting day.
The next two games were a pair of one-sided affairs which showcased the scoring potential of Cheshire’s offense.
First, Christon, Ethan Chargois and Maceo Jack all scored 20-plus points in a 102-74 victory over the Plymouth City Patriots, soon to be followed up with a 105-63 demolition of the Surrey Scorchers, where floor general Laquincy Rideau fed his team with ten dishes.
With qualification all but guaranteed, the Phoenix rotated the squad heavily in their final group game against the B. Braun Sheffield Sharks, but despite being down heading into the fourth, role-player EJ Stephens led a comeback to give Cheshire a healthy 78-70 win.
The Utilita Arena court will be awash with talent this weekend, as two of the league’s best offences face off.
The team that advances to the Trophy Final will be the one that can orchestrate their potent attack most effectively, making the point guard battle between Kimbal Mackenzie and Laquincy Rideau the key matchup.
6’1” Florida-native Rideau has been a huge part of Cheshire’s rise in the Championship this season and has continued that form into the Trophy competition.
Known as a dynamic defender, Rideau is displaying his fast hands and timing by averaging over three steals per game, good for second in the league.
The 27-year-old – who has seen his professional career take him to Luxembourg and Ecuador – also has an eye for a pass, feeding out six assists per game including a ten-assist performance against the Scorchers.
Attempting to unlock Rideau’s defence will be in-form Riders’ captain Kimbal Mackenzie.
Leicester’s leader has displayed excellent form during January, saving his best for the crucial victory over the Eagles.
The experienced Canadian is a big game player and Riders fans are accustomed to seeing him come through in the clutch with a dagger bucket.
If the Phoenix threaten to go on a run or the game is tight in the final few minutes, expect to see Mackenzie’s famous stop-and-pop jumper swishing the net.
The all-action point guard is averaging nearly 13 points per game and is +41 in plus/minus in the Trophy.
For the Riders to advance to the tournament final, Mackenzie may need to go over and above the already significant impact he is having on each game.