Newcastle Eagles lifted the BBL Cup, beating London Lions 84-77 in an epic final.

A day overflowing with drama before the two teams had even arrived at the Morningside Arena provided us with an abundance on the floor.

A large Newcastle lead wiped away. The Lions, briefly, roaring loudest.

And then one of the kind of late runs which have become an Eagles’ speciality over the past two decades, enough to see them lift this trophy for a record sixth time behind a game-high 21 points from Rahmon Fletcher.

Advance favourites, the odds rapidly turned against London when six players were ruled out due to positive Covid tests which emerged less than 20 hours before the showpiece.

Deprived of the omnipotent DeAndre Liggins, forced to rush Josh Ward-Hibbert back following three months out through injury, Vince Macaulay had to abruptly reshuffle his Lion pack.

A tough blow, especially when London had meshed so well together since sustaining their lone league loss to Newcastle.

Ten months ago, the Eagles had resisted adversity by securing the BBL Trophy when a fear of Covid left Ian Macleod with a threadbare roster. His side won out, improbably. London, in a similar bind, fought magnificently but could not replicate that trick.

“Finals seem to be crazy,” Macleod acknowledged. “I don’t think this is normal, the last two we’ve had.

“But I’m really pleased to have got this. We were on the other side of this last year when we lost three players 24 hours before the game. There’s too much pride on that team to go away.

“Adversity sparks players. We knew they were going to fight the whole time.”

Lacking depth, the capital outfit came out throwing all they could at their rivals with Justin Robinson aggressively challenging Fletcher at both ends of the floor.

A 6-0 run in the opening period, concluded by Jules Dang-Akodo, put London 14-9 in front.

Assuredly however, Macleod’s men found their stride. Fletcher lit the ignition. A Louis Sayers three-pointer pushed his team 19-18 ahead at close of the first.

London would not lead again until the fourth.

Fletcher has always been a man for the big occasion. Grand stage, chest puffed, eyes on the prize.

The American steadily piloted Newcastle towards healthy breathing space, Justin Gordon his ally as the Tynesiders ease towards a 44-35 half-time advantage.

Eagles were simply aggressive at both ends. Lions needed to shoot better than 3/15 from 3-point range upon their return.

“What I want to see is your belief in yourself,” Macaulay told his side. “You control your own destiny.”

They kept fighting, admirably so. Even as their threes kept missing and Rex Pflueger increased the cushion to 56-41 midway through the third.

Ward-Hibbert was instrumental in an immediate 16-2 flurry that swung the momentum towards London.

The heat was turned up to the max when Dirk Williams – who collected a team-best 19 points for London – hit a three and then converted a dunk on a break following a steal from the energetic Dang-Akodo that slashed the gap to just one point.

Their absolute control ceded, Newcastle were asked to respond, especially when Robinson’s long-range bomb provided their foes with a lead two minutes in the fourth.

Pflueger drained a three. Upper hand regained. Kevin Ware did likewise. A leg up again. And then Orlando Parker converted another from the corner as, suddenly and pricelessly, London found their groove.

71-67 behind as Macleod called a time out with 5:33 left, Eagles needed to snap out of offensive stagnation and excess turnovers.

Instead, he watched Ware down another three and then witnessed Williams soar to give London their biggest advantage of seven.

Cue a retort. Fletcher – who else? – the catalyst. It brought ten unanswered points, capped by a successive threes from Gordon and Sayers, that overturned matters once more.

An epic battle. For survival and silverware. In front of a crowd of 15. Odd times.

Newcastle’s defences held.

Ward-Hibbert was forced into a turnover on a charge to the hoop. Gordon – the MVP of the game – pulled down a Cup final record 15th rebound to add to his 17 points to recover a Fletcher miss. And then the playmaker, regaining the ball, scored improbably in traffic.

31 seconds left and down 81-76, London desperately needed every break going. None went their way with Evan Maxwell slotting home two free throws off an unsportsmanlike foul from Robinson which sealed victory and a 26th major prize on the Toon.

“It’s a crazy game, a tough game but we stuck it out and got the win” Gordon said.

“London is a tough team no matter if they have 15 guys or seven guys. They’re going to come out there and fight. They’re a great team on the run so we knew they were going to come out and get more shots.

“We didn’t do enough to stop that in the third. But we held it out.”

Game Stats

Game notes: London had only a seven-man roster due to Covid exclusions: Ware, Robinson, Williams, Dang Akodo, Ward-Hibbert, Parker, Walker. Darius Defoe collected his 26th trophy win in British basketball, moving one ahead of Fab Flournoy to take sole possession of first place in the all-time rankings.

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Images: Ahmedphotos

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