Mersey Tigers have secured the BBL Championship for the first time in their history, surviving a thriller to dethrone Newcastle Eagles with an 80-75 victory at Sports Central.

It was a fitting conclusion to a titanic duel which has raged for much of this campaign, decided on the floor in head to head combat. And ultimately, it was the men from Liverpool who prevailed at the hosts' expense, cementing the title with a result which gave them an unassailable advantage at the top of the standings.

After a 25-minute delay to the start due to a scoreboard malfunction, the early stalemate was broken open by a 7-2 run from the visitors who moved 17-10 in front. However Fab Flournoy ignited an 11-2 reply which saw Reggie Jackson draw the hosts level before James Jones converted a three-pointer to put the Tigers 22-19 ahead at the close of the first quarter.

With their title on the line, Newcastle hung tight. Kadiri Richards tied the game at 26-26 but Mersey looked inside for gains as made their size and muscle count. Tafari Toney and Andrew Thomson started and finished a 10-2 flurry which left their rivals playing catch-up.

Flournoy got the response he required, Charles Smith standing tall as the hosts fired off ten points without reply to tie the game at 40-40. Sullivan gave the Tigers the edge again. Smith rallied with two free-throws that produced a deadlock at 42-42 at half-time.

The momentum seemed to shift. Mersey showed signs of fatigue. Newcastle accelerated. Jackson put the home side 48-47 in front and in a bleak three-minute spell for Tony Garbelotto’s men, the Eagles embarked on a 7-0 run which eventually delivered a 58-54 cushion headed into the fourth.

With Nate Reinking on four fouls, Thomson put his team on his shoulders. Back to back field goals, plus a free throw, cut the gap to 60-59, and then Reinking converted a jumper from the right wing to give Mersey a lead with 7.19 remaining.

Back and forth it went, basket for basket, blow for blow, two punch-drink sluggers trying to land a knock out punch but holding on for their lives. Thomson was magnificent, the England international centre – who would claim 18 points and 13 rebounds – putting the Tigers 69-67 in front as the hosts lost both Darius Defoe and Flournoy to fifth fouls in quick succession.

In between, Smith hit another priceless three-pointer. Mersey hit back, Toney securing a 71-70 lead with 2 minutes to go which would not be overhauled. Reinking buried a three. Jackson responded in kind. Toney fired inside. Richards jammed home.

Garbelotto called time out with 1.05 left. Nerves trembled. Hearts fluttered.

Unlike 12 months ago, this title race would not go to the final weekend. And it would be not be Newcastle having the final say.

Toney hit two free throws and with 21 seconds remaining, Reinking went to the foul line and although he missed his second attempt, his 22-point tally led the charge as Mersey celebrated.

“We’ve had to battle a lot of adversity all season,” Garbelotto said. “And we showed so much strength to hold on at the end. Every guy contributed and to come here and beat a great team like Newcastle is just magnificent.”

Smith and Jackson had 24 apiece for the now ex-champions who were left to rue a 7 of 29 shooting performance from three-point range, leaving them now to chase the play-off crown to avoid ending the campaign empty-handed.

Sharks bite as Rocks crumble

Paul Williams snaffled 19 points and 13 rebounds as Sheffield Sharks defeated Glasgow Rocks 82-65 in a potential dress rehearsal for the forthcoming play-offs.

A 19-3 run in the second quarter helped put the hosts in complete command and although Mike Copeland ignited a brief retort from Glasgow, Sheffield responded to move 51-30 in front at half-time.

The visitors faced a second humiliation at the Sharks hands’ inside ten days and with Williams dominating, the gap remained at 21 entering the fourth period. And although the Rocks, paced by 16 from EJ Harrison, came from as much as 62-34 behind to save face with a late flurry, the Yorkshiremen were a class apart.

Images: BasketballViews


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