EAGLES RALLY TO COMPLETE TROPHY RAID

Newcastle Eagles lifted the BBL Trophy, defeating Plymouth Raiders 96-80 to claim a 184-177 aggregate win over the two legs of the final.

It sealed the second leg of a potential clean sweep of the four domestic prizes but the Devon outfit fought bravely before fading in the closing minutes.

Who would bet now against Fab Flournoy and his crew ending the season with all four? Not when, as the chips lay down, they came up fighting until there was nothing left to give.

“It was a total team effort,” Flournoy declared. “We didn’t crack under the pressure even though at times, it looked that way. We stayed positive. We stayed upbeat and we played defence which we failed to do in the first leg.”

The hosts, trying to overturn a 97-88 deficit from that sub-par performance at The Pavilions five days earlier, came out with energy. Too much perhaps for a while. But led by 19 points from Paul Gause and a relentless effort, they held sway.

Ousted from their perch by Mersey last season, the swagger is back. It looks ominous for everyone else.

“The object is to win,” said Gause. “The organisation and the coaching staff came in to try and put a good team together. We looked good on paper but we believe in each other and we play together and when you do that, we’re a tough team to beat.”

In a game delayed initially by a late start, and quickly again by a displaced basket, Flournoy’s men were in a rush to level the tie on aggregate but paid the price for hasty shots, missing all but 4 of their first 18 attempts.

They caught a break as Plymouth struggled mightily from long range, going 0/8 from three-point range at the outset. And the hosts gained some precious traction when Andy Thomson converted from long range to propel Newcastle 17-14 clear before Jeremy Bell went to the line and twice find the mark to level at 18-18 at the end of the quarter.

Neither team had found its rhythm until now. Plymouth seemed to click first, Jamal Williams converting an open three, and then draining a breakaway dunk, as the Raiders went 30-25 ahead.

Dared to respond as their odds lengthened, Newcastle finally snapped into life, showed some offensive potency to counter the inside-outside threat of Paul Williams and Bell at the other end.

Flournoy scored to force Gavin Love to take a time out with 3:28 left in the second but the momentum was shifting before the respective coaches.

An 11-0 burst sent Newcastle 42-34 in front as Thomson hit a three. Paul Williams broke the run, Charles Smith hit a three, and then Joe Chapman did likewise as the Eagles took an aggregate advantage for the first time.

The retort continued, Chapman landing another dagger from behind the arc to put the Tyneside outfit 55-41 clear at half-time.

It was just what Plymouth had feared.

And when the outstanding Thomson extended the cushion to 16 less than three minutes into the third, their hopes looked sunk.

Not so fast. Edging back, Paul Williams polished off an 8-0 flurry that saw the guests trail 63-61. Game on once more.

Newcastle – despite Flournoy’s fourth foul – surged again to go 71-63 clear headed into the fourth quarter, still a solitary awkward point behind in the tie.

Plymouth would not lie down. They were at their best, hustling and scrapping in a manner that was so wholly absent during January’s miserable Cup final loss.

“They wouldn’t go away,” Flournoy admitted. Even if it ultimately proved unsustainable.

12 of the first 16 points of the decisive, vital period swung in the Eagles favour with Andrew Bridge capitalising on an unsportsmanlike foul called against Michael Ojo.

With the prospect of ending a five-year wait for silverware fading, Love’s men held grimly on, taking blows but refusing to drop onto the canvas, even when Chapman pushed the gulf up to 83-67 with 6:30 left.

Nerves jangled among the home crowd. When Darius Defoe converted an alley-oop as the tie neared its last four minutes, he screamed with joy but it was too soon for elation.

With every possession, fears grew or shrank, especially from the 100 or so Plymouth supporters who had travelled 400 miles to witness the occasion.

“We knew they’d come back at us,” Flournoy admitted. “The biggest thing we tried to do was not to think about the points difference and play the game as normal. Because on average, we win by about 14 points.

“So if we continue just to go out and play our normal basket basketball game, we would probably be up. We didn’t look at the clock until probably four or five minutes to go in the basketball game and that’s when they came back. Jeremy Bell came back for them.”

Bell tried to ignite a decisive charge but despite his game-high 29 points, he could not carry the visitors across the line. With his team going 3/23 from long range, there was a glaring flaw in their plan.

Sometimes you live by the J. Here, their misses proved fatal.

With both sets of players diving for every loose ball, and frantically attempting to gain a priceless lift, Flournoy fouled out and watched this gripping drama play out from the bench.

Inexplicably, Gause committed a late turnover and the Raiders looked poised to cut their overall disadvantage to a single point.

Equally costly, Paul Williams – with a double-double of 13 points and 15 rebounds in hand – missed a simple lay-up.

It proved the final nail in the coffin as Sports Central rose in unison as Newcastle sealed their fourth Trophy victory from the line as James Jones and Anthony Martin picked up technicals to make the vanquished Raiders misery complete.

Two trophies down for Newcastle, two to go, with the BBL Championship top of their target list and tantalisingly within reach.

“We’re just focusing on the league next,” declared Gause. “I don’t think guys are really worried about that now.

“We’re just trying to finish out the season strongly, win the rest of our game and set ourselves up to be playing our best basketball going into the play-offs.”

The warning has been served.

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