London Lions suffered a 77-73 loss to Neptunas in the Basketball Champions League qualifiers.

It means the Brits drop into the FIBA Europe Cup in the New Year while Neptunas will face the winners of the other qualifying match, Tsmoki-Minsk of Belarus and Bulgaria’s Balkan Botevgrad, on Thursday in a play-in to enter the eight-team regular season group stages.

The Lions came so close though, fighting admirably to the end until the trap door opened.

As European debuts go, it was a rollercoaster for the reigning BBL champions as they sought a return on generous investment and enhanced ambition.

Byron Mullens had acknowledged the weighty expectations on his NBA-sculpted shoulders.

Neptunas, aware that the centre would be a pivotal presence, applied pressure but he remained fastidious as colleagues picked up early fouls.

As advantages were traded in the opening quarter, London eeked out a 14-8 cushion before it was speedily erased, and then converted into a 24-21 lead by the Lithuanians.

Open looks were being presented to Neptunas. Not capitalised upon in converting only 4-14 from three-point range in the first half as Vince Macaulay bet on a zone defence as a dare.

A three from Justin Robinson, who scored ten of his 13 points before the break, brought Lions with one midway through the second but the former EuroLeague side hit six unanswered to again pull away, holding onto a 40-38 half-time lead.


With echoes ringing out around the empty arena, the volume increased as urgency rose.

Kervin Bristol picked up his fourth foul just three mins into third quarter but a smaller line-up accelerated.

It helped that Neptunas lost discipline. Mullens and Klaidas Metrikis skirmished while awaiting a fresh throw. Elbows were swung. After consulting a video replay, the officials handed Metrikis an unsportsmanlike foul and it provided another dollop of momentum that drew London level at 45-45.

Macaulay, the great survivor of this franchise, patrolled the sideline, urging his recruits to do more than just hang on, despite seeing DeAndre Liggins suffer a dislocated finger that limited him to just 19 minutes of action.

Pursuing a first European victory for a British side since Brighton in the 2004-5 ULEB Cup, Lions entered the fourth level at 54-54 and with every hope in the world.

A fulcrum stood tall. Veteran captain Joe Ikhinmwin spelled the starters admirably with consecutive scores to open the quarter.

Then late signing Matthew Bryan-Amaning, who had a game-high 16 points, chipped in with a block from Mullens – the apex in a zone that too frequently disconnected out of sync – epitomising an energetic surge that took their side 63-58 in front with less than six minutes left.

Metrikis, not chastened, hit a three in reply. MBA, with a reverse lay-up, kept their rivals at bay but a three, then a short lay-in, by Dziugas Slavinskas forced Macaulay into a time-out with 4:12 remaining.

Once again, Metrikis was rock solid from long range before fouling out on a technical for flopping. London, under the cosh, required execution and poise.

Robinson caught a break with a three-point attempt that bounced off the rim, onto the top of the backboard and then, fortuitously, plummeted back down through the hoop.

Down 73-70 with one minute to go, London were clinging on for dear life, Kevin Ware’s efforts underlined as he was sidelined with cramp.

Next man up.

A corner three from Dirk Williams levelled. Following a time out from Tomas Gaidamavičius, Mullens was forced to foul and Norbertas Giga, who headed Neptunas with 15 points and 14 rebounds, converted 2/2 from the foul line for a lead with 17.6 seconds remaining.

London went inside to Bryan-Amaning who, improbably, was deemed to have lost possession while going to the basket despite drawing heavy contact.

Martynas Mažeika made both free throws with 7.6 on the clock and Neptunas four ahead and within sight of the line.

Recovery was simply too much to ask with Lions left to rue eight missed free throws and, ultimately, a controversial late call that will haunt them.

“That was a tough call because that there was our chance,” said Macaulay.

“We knew it was going to be tough but I thought we showed a lot of character – we came back well but down the stretch they showed a lot of smarts.”



Lions starters v Neptunas: Robinson, Liggins, Ware, Bristol, Mullens

Game Stats



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