A late steal by Tafari Toney earned Mersey Tigers a place in their second final of the season as they defeated Newcastle Eagles 77-74 in the BBL Trophy semi-final second leg, winning 159-156 on aggregate.

The Tigers were playing catch up for the whole of the second half and only took the lead with just 31 seconds on the clock and as the Eagles pushed for the decisive score, Toney pounced on a loose pass to slam dunk.

After an 82-82 stalemate at the John Amaechi Centre in Manchester on Wednesday, the stage was set for a winner takes all match for a place in the final at the O2 Arena on Saturday March 5.

In front of a sell-out crowd, the Tigers started well, opening up an 8-2 lead thanks to a brace of three pointers from the inspirational Nate Reinking, who marked his second appearance since returning the injury by topping the Tigers’ points scoring with 20.

The Eagles hit the front for the first time at 15-13 and then at 22-20, before a late score gave them a 24-20 first quarter advantage.

Both sides got bogged down a little in the second quarter and the Eagles took advantage, going on a nine point roll with former Tiger Trey Moore at the heart of all their good play. By half time, the Tigers were fortunate to only be nine points down at 49-40.

But the first half soon became a distant memory in what was to be a gripping second half, as the Tigers sought to clear their arrears. Moore continued to punish the visitors in both defence and attack and the Eagles were able to open up a 58-46 lead, and a final place was beginning to slip out of reach for the Mersey club.

However, determined not to miss out on the chance to follow up their BBL Cup final appearance earlier in the month, the Tigers began clawing their way back in to the game and went on an 11 point hot streak, with Toney, Andrew Thompson and James Jones all landing scores to close the score to 57-59.

The lively Moore, backed up by coach Fab Flournoy, ended the Tigers’ hot streak and the Eagles finished the third quarter with a 62-59 lead.

The next score was crucial and it was Thomson who grabbed it for the visitors, bringing them back within one at 61-62. It looked like it was going to be a night of missed opportunity when both Drew Sullivan and James Jones missed golden opportunities, and they were made to pay as the Eagles opened up a 66-63 lead.

But a massive three pointer by Jones got the Tigers back on terms for the first time in the second half. Despite finally restoring parity with their opponents, they just couldn’t find the score to put them ahead, and the game turned in to a tension-filled end-to-end contest, with the score tied at 68, 70, 72 and 74 as both teams searched desperately for a decisive play.

At 74-74 a foul called, ironically, on Moore gave the Tigers the chance, and with just over half a minute of the match remaining, Perry Lawson kept his nerve to give his side the lead.

He then missed two further free throw chances, and it looked like the chance to seal victory had gone. But as the Eagles set themselves for one last attack, a loose pass was pounced upon by Toney and he raced through to slam the ball home to the delight of the travelling support.

Mersey had 22 seconds to hold out, and they did just that to complete a thrilling victory and set up a final clash against Guildford Heat in London, on the same day that a regular season game from the NBA is to be played at the same venue.

“It’s  win that affirms my decision to play for the Mersey Tigers,” said Sullivan. “And it also shows that the power is being dispersed among the league, not being held in the north-east anymore.”

1st leg recap

An amazing night at the Amaechi Centre in Manchester saw Mersey Tigers and Newcastle Eagles end up deadlocked at 82-82 in the first leg of their BBL Trophy semi-final.

And it leaves both with all to play for in the second leg on Tyneside on Friday evening.

It required a late fightback from the displaced hosts who rebounded from being held to just four points in the third quarter to score 28 in the fourth to keep their hopes alive., led by 20 points from fit-again Nate Reinking.

The game had seemed straightforward in the early stages as Tigers led 11-10 after four minutes.

However, Darius Defoe’s two baskets started an 16-5 run for Eagles which helped the visitors surge into a 16-26 lead before being pegged back to 20-26 after ten minutes.

Thompson helped Mersey rebound (Ville Vuorinen)

Tigers scored the first eight points of the second period to make it a 12-0 burst over the break. Their 28-26 lead was soon turned into a 32-40 deficit as Trey Moore punished his former club with some excellent play.

Great Britain skipper Andrew Sullivan was next to inflict pain on his ex-employers as he notched the final five points in an 18-5 run to end the first half to give Tigers a 50-45 advantage.

After the re-start, Mersey’s offense went stone cold as Eagles, in typical fashion turned up the intensity of their defence.

The home team went two of 14 from the field to score a paltry four points. 

Newcastle were hardly prolific as they managed only 19 points in response. It did give them a 64-54 cushion though as the teams headed for the final quarter.

Tony Garbelotto’s men found their range again. A 9-0 run to start the period cut the gap to 64-63 and although Eagles surged 6 clear, Tigers completed a remarkable comeback when a fit-again Nate Reinking three-pointer capped an 8-0 run.

The teams traded baskets for final two minutes of the match with neither able to get more than two points clear.

Joe Chapman hit a game-high 22 for Newcastle.

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