Newcastle Eagles are the 2021 BBL Playoff champions.

But they had to scramble and claw to hold off London Lions 68-66 in the final and pick up the season’s last piece of silverware, the seventh time this prize has headed to north-east England.

An epic conclusion to a campaign like no other. Nothing left on the floor at Leicester’s Morningside Arena which would have rocked if its doors had not been closed due to Covid.

Instead, both sets of combatants made ample noise with London punching as much as 12 ahead in the third period but then subjected to a vicious combination from Newcastle.

A fitting scrap until only one was left standing and the other on the canvas.

Knockout stuff with Cortez Edwards the game’s MVP with 22 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists.

“I’m very happy,” said victorious head coach Ian Macleod. “If you’d have said the score was going to be 66-68, I’d have asked what was going to happen in the fourth quarter.

“I thought our defence was incredible after we got the first eleven points of the second. It feels like we did a great job defending the three.”

His own third trophy in just two seasons in charge since taking on the impossible task of following Fab Flournoy in the role.

“We’re three for three in finals in the most difficult year that most of us will ever remember,” he underlined.

“That’s success. What else is success? Themba Yabantu playing 27 minutes for us in a game at Bristol and not looking out of place when he came to us at ten years old.

“There’s lots of different measurements of success. Externally, it looks like trophies and we’ve got two of those, so it’s a successful year.”

With Justin Robinson sitting out with torn ankle ligaments sustained in the semi-final triumph over Plymouth Raiders, other Lions had to step up.

Orlando Parker was first in line, scoring 10 of his game-high 27 points in a 13-2 start for the BBL Trophy winners.

High stakes though. Elevated tensions. Forced into an early timeout, Newcastle became engaged in a mass bust-up on court involving players from both teams with Darius Defoe and Dirk Williams at its centre.

Interceding to quell the standoff, the officials, sensibly, opted for calm warnings over early ejections.

Newcastle toiled to get into their transition game, with DeAndre Liggins a potent speed bump on the floor.

Shooting a mere 4-15 over the initial ten minutes, they were outscored 24-12 in the first quarter but then found some light with eleven unanswered to begin the second as their defence clicked into a higher gear.

Defence held sway with tough shots forced at either end. London missed the poise of Robinson while Liggins did his utmost to limit Fletcher’s forays.

Yet Lions carved out a 9-0 burst that re-affirmed their advantage before two baskets from Fletcher reduced the Eagles’ deficit to 35-30 at half-time.

It did not help their cause that Justin Gordon was whisked to the bench when his fourth foul arrived in opening minute of the third period.

Yet Edwards, increasingly influential, hit six points in a row to once more slash the differential to a solitary point.

Liggins ignited to complete an 11-2 run that cannonballed London 52-42 ahead.

Response needed. Edwards and Fletcher, the dynamic effervescent duo, combined for eight points without reply in a 15-2 tsunami that, almost improbably, saw the Tyneside outfit go 57-55 up with 7:04 remaining in the fourth and they gained a valuable assist when Williams fouled out.

Fletcher has never seen an opportunity for prizes he didn’t like. The American playmaker, who chipped in 13 points and ten assists, lives for these occasions in the way others crave oxygen. However others took from his selfless lead.

Evan Maxwell became ever more influential. Louis Sayers broke another tie with a three, only for Liggins to level.

But it was Edwards who had the last say, with two foul shots with 48 seconds left. And two late misses from Liggins ensured even that two fluffs apiece from the line from Maxwell and Fletcher would matter not.

Eagles triumphant, Lions vanquished, deja vu from January’s BBL Cup final.

“We had a great resilience,” Edwards said. “We just kept fighting. We had to stay together and just pull through.

“I felt like the second quarter I did everything well except score the basketball. I had energy. I was trying to pressurise Liggins as much as possible. So once the third quarter came, I just found my groove.

“Without Justin, a pure point guard, we just wanted to make it difficult for everybody else to make decisions.”

It was a formula that worked, just enough.

London – who were a debilitating 6-29 from three-point range – go into the summer with plans to enter the Basketball Champions League once again but with a sense of under-achievement given their ambitions and budget.

They will evaluate and reconstruct, likely to come back with more weaponry and enhanced ambitions.

This summed up their year – at times great, at others inexplicably fallible.

“The game was won and lost because we didn’t score enough,” Vince Macaulay acknowledged. “We kept them to 68 points. That’s normal. But we couldn’t score the ball.

“We started getting guys hesitating. But the flow was lost when Dirk picked up quick early fouls and he went back in and picked up some silly fouls.

“But it’s a learning process and we have to move on.”

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Game Stats

Photos: AhmedPhotos

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