BBL Cup final 2014

Leicester Riders retained the BBL Cup they won last January as Andrew Sullivan inspired an irresistible comeback to steal the silverware 72-69 from a Newcastle Eagles team that seemed set to end their recent trophy drought in a final that started short on quality but finished high in excitement.

In front of a crowd of 8,500 at Birmingham’s NIA, the Riders, who had trailed 67-56 with five minutes remaining, have now won four of the last five BBL trophies, three of them in finals against the Eagles, who have not lifted a trophy since completing a clean sweep of silverware in the 2011-12 season.

The Eagles’ veteran forward Charles Smith, the only player to shoot the ball reliably from any sort of range in the game’s 40 minutes, probably deserved the MVP award for his 27 points, but the award instead went to Sullivan, whose 16 points including 11 points in the Rider’s heartbreaking final-furlong surge.

Jay Couisnard top-scored for Leicester with 18 points and Rashad Hassan added an impressive 10 points and nine rebounds, while Newcastle’s Malik Cook had 13 points and received backup from Scott martin’s 12 points and Paul Gause’s 11.

The two teams’ finals have been tough affairs, not always easy to watch, and this one started out as one of the scrappiest in the series. Of the first 25 points scored in the match, only the 10 free throws scored came from further than five feet and Leicester missed seven of those from 11 attempts in that time.

Smith’s 12 points, including a three, in the first quarter correctly indicated his recent run of poor returns in finals was about to end, but Newcastle’s plan of trying to win the final with just seven players received a jolt with player-coach Fab Flournoy’s two fouls in the first two minutes.

Smith and Cooke gave the Eagles a good start to the second quarter to post a 30-21 lead, but even though the Riders were still missing their free throws, Sullivan and Couisnard were stirring, the latter hitting a pair of threes before the interval to send the sides in with Newcastle leading 37-32.

Newcastle could easily have conceded eight points in the first minute and a half of the second half through a combination of turnovers and poor defence (they got away with just a Hassan put-back), forcing Flournoy to call a wakeup time out. It worked, because the Eagles not only survived the next three largely error-strewn minutes but scored the only two baskets of that passage.

Even better, they followed it up with a 13-6 run with two threes from Smith and a three-point play from Gause to lead 56-45 with 1:46 left in the quarter.

Smith’s fourth and final three-pointer and a pair of twos from Cook – one a strong move in traffic and the second a seemingly impossible two-fingered tip-back – had Eagles 67 -56 ahead and it appeared that Flournoy’s fourth foul and Gause’s fouling out – both of them in the fourth quarter – would not affect the result.

But perhaps they did, because Newcastle looked a little short of a response to Leicester’s epic final surge. Sullivan’s drive for two, followed by his first three and then two free throws, cut the deficit to four points with 2:58 remaining, and suddenly the Riders were coming back at a gallop.

Sullivan added a free throw and another three after an Andrew Lasker putback for Newcastle and stand-in Riders point guard Jorge Calvo’s wide-open three, with 1:13 remaining, gave them a 70-69 lead on a 14-2 streak that had come in less than three minutes.

Couisnard added a pair of frees after Cooke was called for an offensive foul on the drive and when Smith’s last-chance, off-balance buzzer-beater fell short, Newcastle had somehow lost a final they had probably deserved to win for the first 36 minutes by scoring just two points in the final four.

“I sometimes think we’re a bit too stupid to know when we’re beaten,” deadpanned Sullivan afterwards. The GB captain also credited the team’s recent “double-overtime slugfest” against championship rivals Sheffield for reminding the Riders that life is never easy at the top. “We just keep going, keep going, keep going,” he added.

“That showed tonight – a lot of people down 11 points against Newcastle would have said ‘it’s not our night’,” he said.

Praised by his coach Rob Paternostro for being a player that is known for making important plays in important games, Sullivan was a little more humble about his heroics in the last five minutes.

“I’m kind off upset I didn’t do it a little earlier,” he said. “It wasn’t the best start to the game for me personally. One thing I‘ve learned is that sometimes you just have to put the ball in the hoop yourself to win the game. In the last five minutes Jay (Couisnard) came over to me and said ‘Sully, you’ve got to take over here,’”

Flournoy, inconsolable after the Eagles failed at the last hurdle after coming back from the dead in last season’s Cup final, was more measured after game. He spoke of a game of “basketball identities”, with the Riders having forced their identity on the match decisively in the closing minutes. “Their defence is formidable,” he added.

As if the defeat was not enough for the 40-year-old player-coach, he was stricken with cramps almost as soon as he walked out of the post-match press conference and had to rest before returning to the dressing room.

His Eagles are closer to matching up with Leicester than last season, at least on this evidence, but they are not quite there yet.

Tweet updates – Game Stats

Earlier, Ireland Superleague select beat England select 75-66 in a friendly with UL Eagles behind 21 points from UL Eagles centre Delwan Graham.

The Irish trailed 44-38 at half-time but produced a fourth quarter surge to prevail.

“Our team defence really stepped up in the second half and on offence we attacked the basket well I felt,” said Ireland head coach Mark Keenan.

“We said beforehand that the team who played better team defence would win the game and we got to grips as the game went on with not turning it over and moving the ball well.”

Nick George paced the hosts with 16.

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