Still undefeated: Lions stop Scorchers, Flyers hold court vs Riders

BBL Championship

Surrey Scorchers 64-83 London Lions (16-11, 17-26, 16-19, 15-27)
Scorchers – Wang 15, Ray 13, Johnson 10; Lions – Nelson 18, Soko 17, Best 14

Bristol Flyers 91-85 Leicester Riders (25-17, 25-26, 21-23, 20-19)
Flyers – Watson-Gayle 18, Bell 17, Miller 12; Riders 16, Walker 16, Whelan 15

When hopes are high for a great season, such as they are with the London Lions this year, every team approaches their games against them with a little extra juice. The Lions might have struggled on the international stage so far, but going into Saturday’s BBL Championship contest against the Surrey Scorchers, the London side was on top of the table at 4-0. The Scorchers, meanwhile, were 0-2 in the BBL Championship to sit at the bottom of the league.

But the David-Goliath mentality took over, and the Surrey team came out of the blocks with a lot of fire. They even got ahead of the London side and seemed in control, as the favourites were without NBA talent Sam Dekker and Kosta Koufos.

The difference in these Lions games tends to come in the third quarter. They go into the locker room and have a professionalism to talk through what needs to happen, – then, crucially, they execute it. Their defence picks up, and the movement improves on offence.

One example came early in the third, when the Lions British duo connected. Luke Nelson drove to the right and tucked the ball back behind him to a cutting Ovie Soko as the forward got an easy layup.

Josh Sharma then got below the line of defence after a pick-and-roll saw the lob pass reach him over the top. The leaping Lion showed his athleticism to jam it home on the head of a defender.

Surrey’s Charleston Dobbs managed to keep the scoreboard ticking over, with much-needed back-to-back shots from distance, followed up by a huge jam from Shakem Johnson off a Padiet Wang assist. A couple of free throws from Johnson closed the gap to nine. He kept up the energy on defence when he spiked a Lions shot into a wedgie, then broke free on the other end of the court for another dunk. This closed the gap to five, and caused the Lions to take a timeout.

London came out with defensive aggression and opened a gap. Soko and Nelson connected again in the fourth, as Soko posted up on the left block to draw attention from multiple Scorchers, and he whipped a cross-court bullet to Nelson in the corner for an open three.

The Lions maintained pressure and put the clamps on Surrey to limit their scoring. Aggressive defence from Soko caused him to foul out, but Sharma came back in to add size and strength to the line-up, which increased the gap and closed out the game for the Lions, which meant they remained undefeated in the BBL, and the Scorchers remained winless.

Bristol Flyers fans have been giving The BBL Show’s Drew Lasker a hard time for overlooking this team in his season preview, and you could hear them in full voice at another sold out SGS College Arena.

Someone who never backs down from such a challenge is Leicester Riders coach Rob Paternostro. Prior to the game, he spoke to Flyers TV and said: “For an undefeated team, the Flyers have quite a low field goal percentage.”

One reason for Bristol’s success, however, is their rebounding. They might be shooting just 38.1 per cent from the field, but they are attacking the glass and average 46 rebounds per game, including more than 17 offensive boards – five better than their nearest competition.

Leicester’s defence kept the Flyers’ at bay in the opening quarter, but Bristol were strong in defence and rebounding, to open up a 15-6 gap early.

The lead wouldn’t last and the Riders made it interesting by halftime, and closed the gap to a draw approaching the end of the third. As Bristol’s home crowd tried to encourage the physical defence, it got too much in the closing minute of the third as Conner Washington got hit by Brandon Mahan, who picked up his fourth foul.

The Flyers had another team foul to give, so Corey Samuels bumped Kimbal McKenzie, and kept the pressure on for the in-bounds, but the Riders turned it over, and Bristol held a narrow lead going into the final frame.

The first highlight of the fourth came from Bristol’s Mike Miller. His spin behind the back pin move to create a floater in the lane reignited a home crowd, only to be dampened by a big three from McKenzie to stay within four points, which was closed to two by Mo Walker after getting free beneath the basket.

The Riders tried running a similar play for Walker, who got running downhill after a dribble-hand-off pick-and-roll, but Miller fouled the big man, and he went to the line to knock down two free throws and tie the contest at 73 all.

After a Flyers score, the Riders kept the ball moving. Good pressure from Bristol almost caused a turnover, but a loose ball ended up in the hands of Pat Whelan, who rose up for an open three.

It started to get messy for Bristol on the offensive end as well. Jelani Watson-Gayle scored a crazy layup, then Thomas Bell got out in transition and nearly turned the ball over. Crucially, however, both players converted and opened up a three-point lead with five minutes left in the game.

Before tip-off, Flyers coach Andreas Kapoulas shared his concerns around the Riders new addition Derryck Thornton. He said: “They’re an experienced team. Loving and Whelan are leading Leicester but they’ve had a change of point guard with Thornton, and he’s shown he can be explosive.” 

This was on full display with a few minutes to go as Thornton managed to give the Riders the lead with a mid-range jumpshot. But the home court advantage started helped the Flyers, as did Miller on a great driving layup after a huge offensive rebound with less than two minutes to go.

Controversy hit the court with less than a minute to go. Leslee Smith had the ball down low and kicked it out to Bell, who drove in for an acrobatic layup that rolled around the hoop and in. On the in-bounds, the Riders turned the ball over and Bristol scored again, but the basket was called off because Paternostro was trying to sub in a new player. 

With new players on the court, the Riders couldn’t make the most of the saved points and turned the ball over, still down five points with less than 30 seconds to go.

A beautiful hammer play was drawn up by Paternostro to free up Patrick Whelan for an open three, but the Flyers got a tip on the shot to make it hit the backboard. Bristol got the stop and went up the court to be fouled, and Watson-Gayle made both to push the gap to six and stay undefeated – going 4-0 for the first time in franchise history.

Make sure you don’t miss the next time these teams face off, and buy your tickets HERE

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