The 2014/15 season started with a new board of directors running Leopards following the retirement of chairman Fred Dicker and an enthusiastic group of helpers pledging to keep the club going. They faced some serious hurdles as the majority of funding for their community work – which contributed towards bringing in Americans – had dried up and the club still needed a sustainable second venue to stage games at..
The solution to the financial issues was simple. The new board were forced to slash the budget given to returning coach Robert Youngblood with no plans to fly Americans into the country or provide them with accommodation. Yet another second venue was secured, although working in partnership with Harlow Hawks and their junior players provided a stronger base to build on.
It was also a new-look Division One with Bristol and Leeds having departed for the bright lights of the BBL, giving Leicester Warriors and Team Northumbria a reprieve from relegation. Derby Trailblazers made a quick return to the top flight and were due to be joined by Huddersfield Heat, but having spent a small fortune on promotion, they promptly went bankrupt!
With a reduced budget, Youngblood’s game-plan was simple; Sign the core of the previous season’s Newham Neptunes team. The East London side had finished eighth in their debut Division One season and reached the National Cup final, but internal squabbles saw coach Sam Stiller depart before the end of the campaign and the side broke up. Ronnie Baker re-signed for what proved to be his final season, and Youngblood did add a couple of Europeans in Lukas Winegarner and Matic Zupanc. Among the former Newham players was guard Byron Richards who worked for Leopards’ community scheme while providing his own accommodation, and he proved to be a good signing for the Big Cats.
Early Cup and Trophy results were mixed, exiting the former for the second time in three years against London Lituanica and managing to lose twice in the same game against Kent Crusaders (who were Barking Abbey in all but name) in the latter. Youngblood missed most of their competitive debut at Harlow due to the M11 being closed after an incident that nearly prevented the Worthing team bus arriving. Despite those traumas, the Big Cats won their group to set up a home quarter-final where one of their poorest performances of the season saw a home loss against Leicester Warriors less than 24 hours after beating the same side in a league game.
Reading Rockets – who had piped Leopards to the title the previous season – visited Brentwood for the league opener, and Youngblood and Baker rolled back the years to lead the Big Cats to a 69-65 victory. That was of just a few appearances for Youngblood as the years caught up with him and he concentrated on coaching.
Early league form was certainly good, as Leopards went into the Christmas break with a 7-1 record, and home wins against Hemel and Leicester saw that form continue into 2015. Youngblood’s team went agonisingly close to beating Surrey United in the BBL Trophy before some controversial calls down the stretch saw the visitors sneak home.
While Leopards continued to win more than they lost, defeats against Kent and Worthing Thunder looked to have fatally damaged their title chances. They travelled to Leicester on the penultimate weekend of the season with their fate still out of their hands but a big win against Warriors on the Saturday afternoon sent the team bus home happy and as other results came through it became clear that a win against Team Northumbria would give them the league title.
A concerted effort via social media saw the fans flock in. The Brentwood Centre’s seating had been out of action for most of the season, with chairs around the court, and as the arena filled up more and more chairs had to be brought it. It was truly standing room only and it what remains arguably the biggest home game the new Leopards have ever had (all the other trophies were won away from home or on neutral courts) the team didn’t disappoint as they showed no nerves on the way to an 84-72 victory. It was a long night.
The following weekend saw an “after the Lord Mayor’s Show” display at Manchester but Bradford Dragons were dispatched in a tight game at Brentwood to set up a fifth straight visit to the Final Fours.
And then the bombshell hit. If every cloud has a silver lining, it goes without saying that every silver lining has a cloud. Without any warning that there was an investigation taking place, the afternoon before the Final Fours the Home Office announced that no import players who were in country on student visas were allowed to play in Division One basketball. While the other semi-final (Derby v Manchester) saw both sides robbed of their Americans, Leopards were left without Richards while Kent had their full roster. Richards hadn’t been dominant in the way Vernon Teel and Ousman Krubally had when Leopards won the 2012 title, but he had been a key member of the team and an ever-present in the team. Without even a practice to work on things with Richards, Leopards produced a disjointed performance and went down 61-51 in a terrible game.
For all that, it had been an excellent season for a team put together on a tight budget – and proved to be the end of golden era for the Big Cats.
Leopards to play in Harlow –
Leopards will stage some of their 2014/15 home games at Harlow Leisure Zone for the first time following the announcement of a partnership between the Big Cats and Harlow Hawks.
The Big Cats will play six-eight Division One games on Saturday evenings while continuing to stage their other games at the Brentwood Centre. Hawks will continue to run a senior team in the Herts League together with junior sides in both national and local leagues, and head coach Shab Niaz is excited with the link-up with the Leopards:
“We’ve always wanted to run at team in the National League and working with the Leopards gives us the chance to do that. Hopefully watching top flight basketball at the Leisure Zone will give the younger players something to aspire to, and we’re excited that Leopards are coming to Harlow.”
Leopards’ general manager Dave Ryan is also excited about the Big Cats playing in Harlow: “We’ve been looking for another venue to grow the club, and the Leisure Zone is perfect. “We’re looking to become part of the sporting world in Harlow and we hope that the people of the town will support us.”
Leopards draw United in BBL Trophy –
Leopards have once again received an invitation to enter the BBL Trophy, and have been given a home draw in the first round of the competition.
The Big Cats have been regular entrants into the competition throughout their 11-year history, following in the footsteps of the original Leopards, and they’ll open the competition with a home game against Surrey United at the Brentwood Centre on Friday January 16.
It will be the second meeting between the two clubs, with an inexperienced Leopards team losing a pre-season friendly at the then-named Guildford Heat seven years ago, but Robert Youngblood’s team will fancy their chances in this season’s game. United finished second –from-bottom in the BBL Championship last season with only four wins in 33 games, three of which came against the winless (and now defunct) Birmingham Knights. They also had a trip to an EBL Division One side in the Trophy last season, losing 91-75 against a Bristol Academy Flyers side who were beaten in the play-offs by Leopards.
“We’re pleased to be back in the BBL Trophy” said general manager Dave Ryan, “and it’s a nice draw for us. But we won’t be taking them lightly, it’s a new season and I’m sure they’ll look to improve on last year.”
Leopards went out of the competition at the hands of eventual league champions Newcastle Eagles, the other Division One entrants – Reading Rockets – will host the north east side in a battle of the regular season champions. The final will return to the Emirates Arena for a third consecutive year, with the showpiece game taking place on Sunday 8 March.
Youngblood re-signs pair –
Courtney Van Beest, who finished second in the club’s MVP award behind the all-conquering Howard Crawford, returns, and Youngblood is delighted to have snapped up the English guard/forward:
“Re-signing Courtney was one of my highest priorities during the summer” he said. “Although he doesn’t often start, he brings us massive energy off the bench and is capable of playing starter’s minutes if needed.
“He’s one of the best English players in the league and a big part of why we finished second in the table last year and reached two semi-finals.”
Seven-foot centre Lawrence Brown also returns for a third season with the Big Cats, and Youngblood is hoping for big things from the 26-year-old:
“When he’s playing well, Lawrence can cause real problems for other teams. He needs to be more consistent, but with the import big man I’m hoping to bring in we should be able to dominate inside.”
Leopards add Albert –
Leopards coach Robert Youngblood has added English point guard Albert Margai to his roster as the Big Cats prepare for Sunday’s friendly against Philippines Select at Harlow.
The 27-year-old has plenty of experience in the top two divisions of English basketball, having initially played against the Big Cats for Leeds Carnegie in 2009/10 and 2010/11. After playing in the Eurobasket Summer League in 2011 he moved into the BBL when he signed for Guildford Heat.
He remained with the renamed Surrey Heat for the 2012/13 season where he was a regular starter, averaging 7.4 points per game.Last season saw him start the campaign with London Lions before joining Newham Neptunes in January.
Margay played in Saturday’s 81-65 scrimmage victory against Team USA Select and will make his official debut when Leopards play at Harlow this weekend.
Leopards snap up Ajumobi –
Leopards have added another qualify English player to their roster ahead of the new EBL Division One season with the signing of small forward Dave Ajumobi. The 25-year-old Londoner first came to Leopards’ attention in the 2009/10 season when he helped London Mets win the National Trophy in their first (and only) season in Division One. After a season with Brixton Topcats he moved to Leeds Carnegie for two years, helping them win the National Cup in 2013.
Last season saw Ajumobi make another appearance in the National Cup final as Newham Neptunes lost to Reading Rockets in the title game. The Big Cats fought off competition from several clubs to secure Ajumobi’s signature, including Rockets who announced his signing in the summer.
“We’ve tried to sign Dave on several occasions, and it’s great that he’s finally with us” said general manager Dave Ryan. “I’m sure he’ll do a great job for us, and I’m really looking forward to seeing him in action at Harlow on Sunday.
Leopards start with win –
“It was a great start to life in Harlow” said general manager Dave Ryan. “We had a decent crowd which gives us something to build on, and considering we’ve only been together as a team for a week, we looked good.”
The result was never in doubt as the Big Cat scored the first 17 points of the game before the introduction of the second unit saw the visitors cut the lead to 25-11 at the first break.
The Philippines team were held to just two points in the first nine and half minutes of the second period as Leopards’ poured in 21 points of their before Mike Mustre hit a trey to make the half-time score 46-16.
Eleven unanswered points from the home side saw Leopards’ lead grow to 60-18 before the visitors hit the final six points of the third period to cut the lead to 74-33 at the final break.
With three minutes remaining Leopards looked set to miss out on a century of points as they led 92-51, but Will Ashby exploded with four straight three-pointers in under two minutes to wrap up the win.
Courtney Van Beest and Ashby led the Big Cats’ scoring with 19 points apiece with Ryan Wilson adding 16 and Dave Ajomobi and Byron Richards 13 apiece.
Ronnie’s back for the Cats –
45-year-old Baker is England’s most capped player, having collected 156 caps in an international career that lasted 18 years, culminating with a bronze medal at the 2006 Commonwealth Games
Baker showed that he is still capable of playing at a high level, and will give Leopards’ coach Robert Youngblood additional options at the guard spots as bringing a wealth of experience
Baker played three seasons with the original Leopards in the mid-1990s, winning the BBL title and the National Cup in 1996/97 season as well as playing for seven other BBL clubs before returning to the new-look Leopards in January 2009 as player-assistant coach and remained with them until the summer of 2010.
Youngblood is delighted to have his former team-mate back with the Big Cats: “Ronnie says he has one more year left in him, and I’m pleased that he’s going to spend it with us” he said. “He brings us invaluable experience and he showed last year at Bradford that he can still hit the big shot when we need him to.”
England’s most-capped player will return to action for the Big Cats against Great Britain’s most capped player Drew Sullivan when Leopards host London Lions on Friday evening, tip-off 8pm. Isebor provided good back-up off the bench as Leopards took the runners-up spot in Division One as well as reaching two semi-finals.
Where there’s a Will, there’s also a Byron –
Leopards have made their first import signing of the season with the capture of forward Byron Richards as well as English shooter Will Ashby. The 6’5” American joins the Big Cats from Division One rivals Newham Neptunes having helped the East London side to eighth play in their debut season in the top flight as well as a place in the National Cup final where they lost to Reading Rockets.
The 25-year-old spent four years Amer International University, and NCAA Division II school in the USA, and is delighted to join up with the Big Cats:
“In my second year playing overseas it is exciting to get the opportunity to do it with such a respected organization and coach within England” he said.
“It’s also equally exciting to be playing with some of my favorite teammates and friends I made from my previous season, and I think such a move only will strengthen the bond and chemistry of our unit on and off of the court. I love the passion and the energy the fan-base of the organization brings, the professionalism and promotion as well and I look to match and exceed that passion through working myself to the bone to become the absolute best player I can possibly be this year and help assist us to be one of the best teams in this country, thank you all.”
Richards will know several of his new team-mates having played alongside Dave Ajumobi and Albert Margai last season, and the former Newham trio are joined by Brentwood-born Ashby who returns home to the Leopards having previously played for the Big Cats as a youngster in 2009/10. He certainly made an impact on his return to Leopards, hitting six threes including four straight from beyond the arc in Sunday’s 108-52 win against Philippines Select.
Comfortable Cup win for Cats –
Leopards powered their way into the National Cup second round with a 95-48 victory against Barking Abbey at the Brentwood Centre on Sunday. Dave Ajumobi led the way with 21 points and four assists as the Big Cats proved too strong for the young visiting side, and they will now host Hackney White Heat at a date and venue to be announced.
Josh Foulds opened the score for Abbey but back-to-back scores from Courtney Van Beest gave Leopards a lead they would never lose. Ajumobi sunk a trey to send Leopards into the first break with a 23-12 lead, and a 15-0 run across the first two periods effectively ended the game as a contest as the home team led 42-23 at half-time.
A 12-2 start to the second half continued the pain for the visitors, and Leopards led 68-31 at the final break before wrapping things up with a 27-17 fourth period. Van Beest and Will Ashby finished with 16 points apiece, with the former adding seven rebounds and six assists, with Lawrence Brown and Marvin Isebor each adding ten points.
Thunder beaten in thriller –
Leopards made a winning start to life at Harlow Leisure Zone as Worthing Thunder were beaten 80-76 in the National Trophy, on Saturday. The Big Cats had trailed by as many as seven points in the third period and were still down by two at the final break before they took control in the fourth period to end Thunder’s perfect start to the season.
The home side had to do without coach Robert Youngblood for the majority of the game as he was stuck on the M11 for three hours, but Roger Malpass took charge of the team and picked up his first win as play-caller. The Leopards also had to borrow a kit from Harlow Hawks as theirs was stuck with Youngblood.
Albert Margai led the Big Cats with 22 points, with Dave Ajomobi adding 18, Lawrence Brown 17 and Courtney Van Beest nine.
The travel problems and slightly delayed start didn’t affect the home side as Ajumobi and Brown hit four points apiece as they rushed into an 11-0 lead to force a timeout from Thunder coach Danny Hildreth.
The move worked as Leopards were held to seven points in the final seven minutes of the period, and despite Ajumobi scoring the final basket of the quarter, they saw their lead shaved to 18-15 at the first period. Van Beest opened the second period with a lay-up but Thunder gradually chipped away at the lead and went ahead for the first time at 30-28 when Milton Chavis scored.
Both teams would trade buckets for the final three minutes of the half before buckets from Van Beest and Brown gave Leopards a narrow 35-34 lead going into the locker room at half-time.
Brown opened the second half scoring and Leopards went on a 7-0 run as they took command but the south coast side fought back with Brendan Okoronkwo putting them 47-46 ahead with a three and a lay-up. Thunder’ lead grew to seven points towards the end of the third but it was narrowed to 55-53 on the third quarter buzzer thanks to a three by Ajumobi.
The visitors began the final period the stronger as buckets by Selby Hind-Wills and Chavis extended Worthing’s lead at 58-53. But a three pointer from Nathan Ashby sparked a strong finish to the game from Leopards and despite a rather strange foul call on Margai, Ajumobi and Margai wrapped up the win at the foul line,
Chavis led Worthing with 20, while John Wilkins added 11.
Big Cats add big Lukas –
The 6’9” former Sweden under-18 and under-20 international has spent the last four season playing in the USA for Radford and Rollins universities and the Big Cats managed to get clearance for him before Saturday’s trip to Reading.
His two seasons at NCAA Division One side Radford saw him only play limited minutes, averaging 2.6 points and 2.3 rebounds per game, while his final year at college saw those numbers improve to 7.1 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game.
The 23-year-old also played two seasons for Talje BK in his native country, averaging 9.7 points, 8.8 boards and 1.4 blocks per game.
Kent game to be replayed –
Leopards will get another bite at the cherry after their 78-65 National Trophy loss at Kent Crusaders was declared null and void by Basketball England.
The Big Cats were advised by the referee that the court at Northfleet Technical College had insufficient room between the sidelines and the surrounding wall, with the scorers table only 20cm from the court. Having measured the run-off after the game, Leopards discovered that gap was 1.36m rather than 2m.
With chairs being placed between the wall and the court it was clear that the conditions were far from ideal, and Leopards appealed the result. The Basketball England Competitions Review Panel today ruled that the game should be replayed at a different venue on a date to be agreed.
This is the second time that Leopards have been granted a replay due to court problems in the National Trophy. The 2010/11 game at now defunct London Capital was declared void due to incorrect line markings, and the game was ordered to be replayed. The home side subsequently conceded the fixture. Ironically Leopards’ assistant coach that season was Lloyd Gardner who is now the Crusaders’ coach.
Cup woe for Big Cats –
Leopards saw their hopes of a third National Cup triumph in a decade end with a 70-61 defeat against London Lituanica at the Brentwood Centre, on Sunday. A poor third period proved to be the difference between the two sides as the visitors scored 16 unanswered points to take control and they never looked back.
Dave Ajumobi hit a trey to open the scoring, and a three point play from Albert Margai kept the Big Cats in front, 8-5 after three minutes of action. A Julius Visockas three gave the visitors their first lead of the game at 12-11 with four minutes, but a pair of Lawrence Brown free-throws restored the hosts lead, and the Big Cats edged a tight first period 17-14 as Lucas Winegarner hit a hook shot with the final score of the period.
Brown continued to lead the hosts’ offence, hitting back-to-back shots, and the teams were tied at 27midway through the second period but a three-pointer from Will Ashby launched a 9-0 run, and the Big Cats went into the locker room with a 38-32 half-time lead.
Byron Richards made it an eight-point game with the opening score of the second half but that was as good as it got for the hosts as Visockas launched the run that saw the London side pour in 16 unanswered points. Margai eventually broke the run with a pair of foul shots, and he narrowed the gap to two with at the charity stripe following a technical foul on Paulius Rašamavičius before driving to the basket for a layup.
Aušridas Petraitis and Paulius Adomaitis put the visitors back in charge before Margai cut the deficit to 52-46 at the final break.
Ashby scored the Land of Plenty to halve that lead at the start of the fourth period and Winegarner made it a two point game with 8:30 on the clock. That proved to be as good as it got for Robert Youngblood’s team as Visockas hit another triple and the same player made it a ten point game at the foul line with just under two minutes remaining.
Ashby took his personal tally to 12 points with another score from downtown to give the hosts some hope, but the home side never came closer than six points as the Lithuanians wrapped up the win at the foul line.
Brown led Leopards with 17 points while Margai added ten.
Groundhog Day in Kent
Will Ashby opened the scoring with a trey and then hit a long jumper to put Leopards 5-4 ahead. But that was as good as it got for the visitors, and although Dave Ajumobi also scored from beyond the arc, the home side took a 20-13 lead into the first break.
Swedish centre Lukas Winegarner opened the second period scoring with a trademark tip-in and hit a three midway through the period, but the hosts soon pulled away and it took a trey from Jordan Williams to cut the deficit to 37-27 at half-time.
An Ashby drive to the basket made it a seven point game with three second half minutes gone, but despite veteran Ronnie Baker taking control late in the third period and Ajumobi draining a three, a 12-0 run from the home side saw them go into the final break with a commanding 63-44 lead.
Albert Margai opened the fourth period scoring, but Leopards never looked capable of getting the margin into single figures as the home side closed out the win.
Ashby led the way for the Big Cats with five three pointers in his 19 points, with Ajumobi adding 11 and Baker ten. Leopards are now second in the group with a 3-1 record, and although they are definitely through to the last eight, they will look to win their final two games to get home court advantage in the quarter and semi-finals.
Zupanc signs for Big Cats –
Leopards have strengthened their team at the two guard positions with the signing of former Slovenian junior international Matic Zupanc. The Big Cats are hopeful that the 24-year-old will be registered with Basketball England in time for Friday evening’s game against Reading Rockets at the Brentwood Centre as they look to make a winning start to their Division One season.
Zupanc’s career started at the age of ten with then EuroLeague club KK Zlatorog, and he helped them win national titles at under-14 and under-16 levels as well as playing for the Slovenian national team in the European under-16 championship. He also helped Zlatorog, finish fourth in the Slovenian under-18 league having turned pro with them at the age of 16. He collected a silver medal in the Slovenian National Cup and helped their senir team finish fifth in their national championship
A spell with KK Postoja saw Zupanc finish seventh in the Slovenian League before moving on to KK Litija in the second division. He was then offered a scholarship to University of East London, and he helped the university to an unbeaten season last year, winning promotion to the BUCS Premier League.
Zupanc turned down an offer to play for Leopards’ Division One rivals Newham Nepturnes to sign for the Big Cats, and he’s looking forward to his debut tonight: “I am very excited to be a part of Essex Leopards this season” he said. “This will be my first season in EBL and I hope I will be able to contribute well to a great team success.”
Veterans win it for Leopards –
Leopards made a winning start to their Division One campaign with a 69-65 victory against Reading Rockets, at the Brentwood Centre on Friday evening
The visitors led for just one minute of a tight encounter and trailed by eight with under two minutes remaining but forced a thrilling finish before the home side sealed the win at the free-throw line.
Both sides went into the game under-sized with Lawrence Brown (back) and Lukas Wingegarner (illness) missing for the Big Cats and Danny Carter (hamstring) sitting out for the Rockets, and Leopards’ coach Robert Youngblood was forced to come out of retirement to finish with four points and six rebounds in 13 minutes of action.
Dave Ajumobi led the home side with a 17 point, ten rebound double-double, with Byron Richards adding three treys in his 13 points. Debutant Matic Zupanc marked his debut with 11 points, while veteran point guard Ronnie Baker showed a calming influence at key times, finishing with ten points. Rockets were led by 13 points from Adria Baiget Marco with Deion Turman and Matt Davis adding 11 each.
The Big Cats led 12-4 after five and a half minutes, and although Youngblood marked his first game in ten months with a block and a score off Will Ashby’s missing, a strong finish to the period saw Turnman hit a pair at the foul line to cut the hosts’ lead to 16-12 at the first break.
Baker drained a triple to open the second period, and back-to-back Ajumobi shots kept the hosts ahead before Zupanc made it a ten point game with jump shot.
But the visitors responded with an 8-0 run capped by treys from Joel Keeble and Davis before Zupanc hit a pair at the foul line to give Leopards a 33-29 lead.
There was little to choose between the teams in the first five minutes of the second half, with Richards making it a six point game when he split a pair at the free-throw line.
But with the third period dominated by the referees’ whistles an Ajumobi basket launched a 10-4 run and Courtney Van Beest sent the Big Cats into the final break 50-40 ahead.
Scores from Sergio Guardia Marti and Turnman made it a six point game to open the fourth period before Ashby replied for the Big Cats. Scores from Albert Margai and Van Beest saw the home team move 59-50 ahead with four minutes remaining and Zupanc made it an 11 point game with three minutes on the clock. A Turnman dunk followed by a Davis trey saw Rockets back within six before Youngblood replied at the other end.
The visitors still had one more run left as they hit five unanswered points capped by a pair of Guardia Marti free-throws to make it a three point game with 40 seconds on the clock, and after Ajumobi and Guardia Marti had each split a pair at the line it was 64-61 with 25 seconds left. In the end it was Baker who sealed the win as the 45-year-old remained ice cool at the foul to sink four straight shots and send the noisy Brentwood crowd home happy.
A sublime fourth period saw Leopards blitz Hemel Storm 29-12 to pick up an 85-70 National Trophy win on the road, on Saturday evening.
Coach Robert Youngblood’s decision to go small in the final quarter paid dividends as smothering defence and the ability to get to foul line on the fast-break proved too much for the home side.
The win means that a victory against Newham Neptunes at Harlow Leisure Zone next Saturday will give Leopards top spot in the south group and home quarter-final against Leicester Warriors as well as home-court advantage in the last four if they progress.
It was Leopards 21st straight victory against the Hemel franchise which began life at West Herts Warriors.
Dave Ajumobi got his mojo back at the foul line to lead the Big Cats with a season-high 28 points, while Courtney Van Beest kept Youngblood’s side in the game during the second period to finish with 16 points. Matic Zupanc, who along with Albert Margai and Ronnie Baker proved to be a deadly three giurd combination in the final stanza, finished with 13 points, while Lukas Winegarner and Will Ashby added nine apiece. Big man Tom Adorian led the home side with 24 points, while former Leopards’ captain Carl Josey added 13 points and Walid Mumuni 12.
Lawrence Brown opened the scoring with a spin move, but the Leopards’ big-man quickly picked a pair of fouls as Adorian converted a pair of and-ones, and a 8-0 run put the home side 10-4 ahead. Treys from Ashby and Ajmobi brought Leopards level and although Matic Supanc also hit from downtown, poor boxing out allowed the home side to lead by as many as seven by Van Beest beat the buzzer with a 12 foot jump shot to cut the deficit to 25-20 at the first break.
Coach Youngblood somehow managed to pick up a technical foul at the end of the first period, but when play resumed Hemel missed the free throw, and that seemed to spark Leopards into life as Van Beest scored a lay-up, Ashby scored with a drive after grabbing a rebound and Ajumobi put the Big Cats up by one off a Zupanc lay-up after four minutes.
But the hosts hit back with a 7-0 run to take control again before Ashby broke the run, and scores from Van Beest and Margai following some great defence cut the home side’s lead to 45-42 at half-time.
Zupanc opened the fourth period scoring with a drive to the basket and Ajumobi tied things with a single free-throw.
The introduction of Baker proved to be the turning point he quickly scored o put Leopards up by four, and after Storm had been called for a five second violation Ajumobi made it an eight point game at the mid-stage of the quarter.
Scores from Ajumobi, Van Beest and Baker completed a 12-0 run and the lead peaked at 20 before Youngblood ran his bench in the closing stages to wrap up the win.
Once again the Big Cats’ three-guard line-up again proved key down the stretch with some excellent defence as they moved up to third spot despite having played the fewest games in the division. Matic Zupanc hit a trey to open the scoring after 16 seconds and Albert Margai kept them ahead before Youngblood was forced to sit American forward Byron Richards down as he collected two fouls in three minutes.
His replacement, Courtney Van Beest converted an and-one to keep Leopards ahead at 10-7 and Margai buried a pair from the Land of Plenty to send the Big into the first break with an 18-13 lead. Lukas Winegarner made it six point game after 80 second period seconds, but after Lorenzo Leis Miguel and Van Beest had exchanged baskets that was as good as it got for the home side and they allowed veteran guard Jason Swaine hit three treys in 61 seconds to give Bradford a 34-32 lead heading into the final two minutes of the half.
Margai restored Leopards’ lead before Jermayne Lang levelled things at the foul line, but it was Van Beest who had the final say in the first half as he hit a jumper to send the Big Cats into the locker room with a 37-35 lead.
Rihard Sulcs scored back-to-back baskets to open the second half before Jeremee Davis completed a 6-0 run to force a timeout from Youngblood.
Margai broke the run, but the closest Leopards came was when Zupanc converted a three-point play with 2:51 on the clock, and it took a pair of Ajumobi free-throws to cut the deficit to 50-46 at the final break.
Ajumobi and Van Beest kept the hosts in touch before the former tied the game at 52 a minutes into the fourth period. That sparked a 7-0 run from the visitors as Leopards were held scoreless for five minutes before England’s most capped player Baker hit a three to launch the game-winning run.
Van Beest cut the lead to two before Baker provided the assist for Margai drain from downtown and give the Big Cats a 60-59 lead with 2:45 on the clock. Neither side troubled the scorers for over two minutes before Sulcs hit a pair at the line to put his side 61-60 up 38 seconds from time.
Margai put the Big Cats 61-60 up with 28 seconds remaining as he drove to the basket and Ajumobi split a pair at the foul line with 11 seconds on the clock before some tough defence kept the visitors at bay.
Margai led Leopards with 17 points and five assists, with Ajumobi adding 16 points and eight rebounds while Van Beest finished with 13 points and nine boards.
Top spot for Leopards –
Leopards sealed home court advantage and top spot in the south pool of the National Trophy with a comfortable 94-68 win against Newham Neptunes on Saturday. The visitors to Harlow Leisure Zone matched the Big Cats in the first half, but were blown away by a 32-17 third period as Robert Youngblood’s side set up a quarter-final against Leicester Warriors at the Brentwood Centre on Sunday January 11.
Will Ashby led the Leopards with 16 points, with Dave Ajumobi adding 15 and Lawrence Brown 14. Albert Margai (13) and Courtney Van Beest (10) also finished in double figures as all ten available Leopards – Byron Richards missed out with a foot injury – played at least 16 minutes and got on the scoresheet. The rebounds were also shared around with Margai pulling down seven boards, and both Lukas Winegarner and Van Beest collecting six. Five players finished with three assists each as Leopards continue to share the ball well.
A pair of Brown hook shots opened the scoring and Ajumobi made it 6-0, but Newham hit back as four straight points from Wayne Yeboah capped an 8-2 run to give them a 9-8 lead. Margai restored the hosts’ lead and an Ashby three kept them ahead and although Sempala tied things with 41 seconds on the clock, Van Beest grabbed an offensive rebound and scored to send the Big Cats into the first break 23-21 ahead.
Tosin Oyelese doubled that lead with the opening score of the second period but the game remained tight with Rhodes giving the visitors a brief one-point lead and the game tied at 35 with 3:48 on the clock.
It was then at the Big Cats started the run that would seal the game for them as Van Beest launched a 10-3 tear to close out the half and Margai hit a pair at the foul line to send the home side into the locker room leading 45-38. Ajumobi and Yeboah each his four points to keep the margin at seven in the opening minutes of the second half, and although the latter hit a trey to make it a four point game with 8:20 on the clock, that was as close as the visitors would get in the rest of the game.
Matic Zapanc launched the 10-0 run that saw Leopards move 17 points clear, with a Margai and-one wrapping it up, and although Yeboah tried to keep his side in touch, Van Beest scored a dunk on the break before a single Andre Allette free-throw sent the Big Cats into the final break 77-55 ahead.
Newham never got any closer than 20 points in the final period, with the leak peaking at 88-61 on a Ronnie Baker jump shot as the Big Cats made it four wins from four at Harlow.
Yeboah led Neptunes with a 28 point, ten rebound double-double with Rhodes adding 13 points.
Leopards win overtime thriller –
The battle of the top two sides in Division One certainly lived up to its billing as Leopards escaped from Derby with a 92-89 win. The Big Cats have never made things easy for themselves this season, with all five league wins coming by four or less points, but an undermanned visiting side can certainly feel proud of a victory against a team who had started the league season with eight wins from nine games.
Dave Ajumobi led the Big Cats’ scoring for the fifth time this season, finishing with a 23 point, 11 rebound double-double and adding seven assists as well as converting the three point play which sent the game into overtime. Albert Margai and Will Ashby each finished with 18 points and six assists, with the former adding four rebounds, while Courtney Van Beest had 16 points to go with his six boards. American pair Chris Shalvoy and Dorr led the home side with 24 and 18 points respectively, with former England junior Lee Goldsbrough adding 15.
The hosts started strongly, taking a 7-1 lead after just 70 seconds before Margai’s three settled the Big Cats down a triple from Ashby gave them a 16-13 lead with 6:18 on the clock. That proved to be the only time Leopards led in the first period as Dorr hit a trey to put his side 30-21 ahead before a Van Beest lay-up and a three from Ajumobi cut the deficit to 30-26 at the first break.
Scores from Ashby and Lawrence Brown kept the margin at two early in the second period but the hosts’ lead hit the nine mark on a John Gould treble and although Ajumobi made it a one point game with 26 seconds remaining in the half, Shalvoy beat the buzzer to send his side into the locker room with a 50-47 lead.
Ajumobi opened the third period scoring and treys from Lukas Winegarner and Ashby helped Leopards go on an 8-0 run to take a 57-54 lead with four minutes gone. The next five minutes saw the teams exchange baskets before Derby finished the period strongly with five points in last minute to lead 70-64 going into the fourth quarter.
A John Stewart trey followed by a technical foul on Ashby saw that lead balloon to 73-64 after 90 fourth period seconds, and when Shalvoy drained a three with seven minutes on the clock to put his side 14 up, the game looked over.
But Leopards have repeatedly shown they can overcome big deficits this season and Van Beest launched an 8-3 run to get the game back into single figures with 4:12 remaining. They still trailed by nine going into the final four minutes before Van Beest against started a run as Leopards hit 11 of the final 13 points to take the game into overtime.
Back-to-back Margai scores from the Land of Plenty made it a one point game with two minutes left before Lamar Morrison made it 85-82 with 45 seconds left. For the second successive game it was Ajumobi who came up with the big play at the end, hitting the shot as Stewart fouled him and then converting the free throw to tie the game before some defence set the game into an extra period.
Neither side troubled the scorer until 2:38 had elapsed in overtime when Ronnie Baker hit a big three to give the visitors a lead they would never relinquish. After Van Beest had missed a pair of charity shots, Dorr hit a pair at the free-throw line to cut the lead to one with 19 seconds remaining. With Derby forced to foul, Margai also missed two free-throws, but Winegarner grabbed the rebound and when Margai went back to foul line he made no mistake.
Leopards chose to foul Shavoy rather than let the hosts attempt a three, and although he hit both shots, Winegarner iced the win at the free-throw stripe.
Perfect start ends in Worthing –
Leopards saw their unbeaten start to the NBL Division One end with an 89-86 at Worthing Thunder, on Saturday. Having won all six of their games that were decided by four or less points this season, it was inevitable that the Big Cats’ luck would run out at some point as key calls went against Robert Youngblood’s side down the stretch.
After Dave Ajumobi had put them ahead by a point with 26 seconds remaining, soft foul calls on Matic Zupanc and Albert Margai saw the home side convert all foul free-throws. Leopards had one more possession with four seconds on the clock, but Zupanc’s long three-point effort missed the target as the home side took the win.
The Big Cats still go into the Christmas break with the best percentage record in Division One, with six wins from seven games.
Ajumobi had a massive night for Youngblood’s team, finishing with a 35 point, 11 rebound double-double, while Will Ashby sunk four treys on the way to a 21 point, four steal haul. Courtney Van Beest also had a double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds for a Leopards team who were without Lukas Winegarner, Jordon Williams and Andre Allette, while American forward Byron Richards played under five minutes due to injury.
In a game that saw an incredible 20 lead changes and ten ties, Leopards trailed 18-17 at the first break despite back-to-back scores from Van Beest to close out the period.
Ajumobi gave Leopards a one point lead with three second period minutes gone, and the visitors’ best spell of the game a Zupanc hit a trey in a 15-3 run which was capped by an Ajumobi jump shot to put the Big Cats 42-30 up with 49 seconds in the first half remaining.
Possibly the turning point in the game came during those final 49 seconds as Milton Chavis and Joshua Brown hit treys before Chavis blocked Albert Magai’s shot on the buzzer to halve the lead to 42-36 going into the locker room.
Although Ajumobi made it an eight point to open the third period, the home side controlled the early tempo and an 8-0 run saw them lead 57-53 after six minutes.
A timeout from Youngblood – who had made a 91 second cameo appearance to score four points before limping out of the action – stopped the rot but it was Ashby who took over the game with an eight-point burst in the space of 51 seconds as the hit back-to-back threes as well as grabbing an offensive board to put the Big Cats up 61-57 with 2:12 in the third period remaining.
Ashby hit another shot from the Land of Plenty to put Leopards 66-60 ahead at the final break but Chavis sparked a 10-2 start to the fourth period to put Thunder up by two before Ajumobi again restored Leopards’ lead with four straight points.
A Chavis and-one gave Thunder a six point lead with 4:32 left, but Leopards worked their way back into the game and were ahead by one on a pair of Margai free-throws with 51 seconds remaining before the some questionable calls ended the Big Cats’ perfect start to the league campaign.
Leopards return to action at Hemel Storm on Saturday January 3 before a double header against Leicester Warriors at Harlow on Saturday January 10 in the league and the following day at Brentwood Centre in the Trophy quarter-final.
Leopards storm to victory –
Leopards opened 2015 in style with a comfortable 85-71 win at Hemel Storm, on Saturday. Albert Margai led the way with 19 points and Courtney van Beest added 18 as a depleted Big Cats team bounced back from their pre-Christmas loss at Worthing.
Robert Youngblood’s side were without starters Dave Ajumobi and Matic Zupanc as well as Andre Allette and Jordan Williams but never looked in trouble against a Storm side who seem to be slipping out of the play-off race.
Lawrence Brown scored the opening two baskets of the night on the way to an eight point haul as the Big Cats led from tip to buzzer to improve their league record to 7-1. Margai hit six straight points to put the visitors 10-3 ahead before back-to-back Van Beest kept up the pressure, and a pair of Ronnie Baker free-throws sent the Big Cats into the first break with a 24-17 lead.
Brown again opened the scoring in the second period, but Hemel stayed in touch until three-point plays from Margai, Lukas Winegarner and Van Beest made it a 13 points game, and despite a timeout from Storm coach Will Ashby wrapped up the first half scoring to send Leopards into the with a 51-36 lead.
That lead was cut to 13 as Tom Adorian opened the second half scoring, but the home side never threatened, and a trey from Byron Richards made it an 18 point game, and Richards hit another triple before Baker’s buzzer-beater extended that lead to 73-50 at the final break.
The opening five minutes of the fourth period saw the Big Cats struggle offensively, with former Leopards’ captain Carl Josey add to his three first half period with a trey as his side rattled off 11 straight points. An Ashby score from the Land of Plenty finally ended the drought, and despite some shambolic officiating which led to a three minute stoppage scores from Baker and Margai took the margin out to 18 with two minutes left to allow coach Youngblood to run his bench.
Ashby finished with 16 points, with Winegarner adding ten, Baker eight and Richards six as Leopards improved to 22-0 against the Storm franchise that started life as West Herts Warriors. Adorian and former Leopard Kenroy Woods led the home side with 14 points apiece, with Josey adding 11 and Simon Kearney ten.
Leopards add Brown and Denchfield –
Leopards have strengthened their roster ahead of the weekend’s double header against Leicester Warriors with addition of guards Ladi Brown and Mark Denchfield. Both players will add depth and experience to the Big Cats line-up as they prepare to Warriors at Harlow Leisure Zone in Division One on Saturday (7.30pm) and at the Brentwood Centre on Sunday (4pm) in a National Trophy quarter-final match-up.
Three-point specialist Denchfield has spent the last three seasons with Division Two side Eastside Eagles where he has consistently scored in double figures.
Brown spent last season with Newham Neptunes were he played alongside current Leopards Dave Ajumobi, Albert Margai, Will Ashby and Byron Richards. He helped the Neptunes to promotion in 2013 before reaching the National Cup final with the London side last season. Prior to that he helped Brixton Topcats to fifth place in Division One in 2010/11, and Leeds to third place in the top flight in 2009/10 having led them to promotion the previous season.
The Londoner is looking forward to joining up with the Big Cats as they continue their twin assault on Division One and the Trophy: “After my injury I am excited to be joining a programme I have heard nothing but good things about” he said. “I know a lot of the guys and I think that will assist with the transition process. The club’s performing at a high level, so I just want to help any way I can.”
Trophy woe for Big Cats –
A terrible first half performance saw Leopards exit the National Trophy with a heavy 50-72 home defeat against Leicester Warriors at the Brentwood Centre on Sunday.
Against a team they had beaten by double digits the previous day, the Big Cats produced a turgid first 20 minutes, scoring a club record low of just 15 points, and they never looked capable of erasing a 27-point half-time deficit. Matic Zupanc led Leopards with 11 points, with Dave Ajumobi adding ten points as their chance of repeating the 2013 success in the competition ended.
It took almost five minutes for the home side to get on the scoreboard with a Zupanc trey, but which time they trailed 9-0, and it took another two minutes for Will Ashby to double their tally to cut the Warriors lead to 14-6. Even that didn’t spark a comeback and the home side went into the first break 23-10 down before allowing Warriors to open the second period on a 5-0 to make it an 18-point game.
Five points from Ajumobi looked to have given Leopards some momentum as they trailed 30-15 with 7:58 on the clock, but incredibly that was the last time the home side troubled the scorers in the half, and Warriors rattled off 12 straight points to lead 42-15 going into the locker room.
It had to get better, and it did as Ajumobi opened the second half with a three point play, but Leopards never got the margin below 20 in the third period and it took a Courtney Van Beest score to cut the margin to 59-34 at the final break.
Byron Richard drained a triple to open the fourth quarter but the closest Leopards came was when a Zupanc triple made it a 19-point game with eight minutes remaining as the Big Cast meekly bowed out of the competition.
Leopards lose nail-biter –
Leopards went agonisingly to beating Surrey Heat in the BBL Trophy on Friday before going down 69-64 against the full-time side.
A 21-11 fourth periods saw Robert Youngblood’s team force a thrilling climax before the visitors sealed the game at the foul line.
United did the damage in the first period, outscoring Leopards 33-17 before Youngblood team settled an drew the second period 11-11 and the third 15-15. Byron Richards made it a five point game when he hit a trey with 79 seconds on the clock and Lukas Winegarner cut the deficit to four with a jumper with 14 seconds left but that was as close as the Big Cats came.
Dave Aumobi led the Big Cats again with 17 points and seven rebounds while captain Albert Margai finished with 13 points and six assists against his old club. Former London Lion Kramer Knutson led Surrey with a 21 point, ten rebound double-double.
The home side weren’t helped by picking up an incredible four technical fouls thanks to some inconsistent refereeing but some excellent defence saw them out-rebound a physically bigger team 50-44 and force the visitors into 24 turnovers. What they were unable to do was defend the three point shot, with Surrey’s ten-from-23 proving crucial while the Big Cats struggled with the their shots all night – hitting just 31 percent.
Scores from Lawrence Brown and Magai gave Leopards an early 4-0 lead, but as the fouls suddenly racked up for Leopards – including an intentional foul call on Will Ashby – the visitors went on an 11-0 run to take a lead they would never lose.
Scores from Courtney Van Beest and Ajumobi saw the gap narrowed to 13-8, but three triples in another 11-0 run saw United take full charge at and despite Van Beest’s lare free-throw they went into the first break with a 33-17 lead. A pair of Van Beest free-throws and a drive to the basket from Margai saw the Big Cats open the second period well but when assistant coach Roger Malpass was given a technical for standing up (he may well have been looking at his opposite number who appeared to have ants in his pants), the writing was on the wall.
Nevertheless, Leopards regained their composure and a Margai trey made it an 11 point game before another rash of T’s saw Ashby and Youngblood incur the wrath of the referees to allow to go into the locker room with a 44-28 lead,
Ajumobi and Brown kept Leopards in touch early in the third period, and Richards sunk a three to make it a 13-point game with 4:36 on the clock but an Elvisa Dusha trey made the margin 17 before Matic Zapanc reduced the arrears to 59-43 at the final break.
Zupanc opened the fourth period scoring and Leopards whittled the lead down, with Ajumobi making it an 11-point game with 6:43 on the clock. As Leopards’ smothering defence continued to cause the visitors problems, scores from Ajumobi and Margai saw them cut United’s lead to 64-57 with 3:18 on the clock.
The comeback began to look a genuine possibility as Brown hit scored with 2:47 remaining to shave the deficit t five before Korry Callum hit a trey for the visitors. Richards replied from the Land of Plenty but although former Leicester Riders’ American Anthony Downing (who was held to just seven points in 38 minutes) could only hit two of his four foul shots down the stretch, the visitors held on for the win.
Still, who needed a Friday night in Plymouth? Friday’s game was sponsored by Fred Dicker who we thank for his support.
Leopards go top –
Leopards went top of NBL Division One as they defeated Kent Crusaders 66-55 in front of a big crowd at Harlow Leisure on Saturday. The Big Cats overcame a slow start to improve their record to 10-2 at the midway stage of the league campaign as third placed Crusaders were consigned to their second defeat of the campaign.
Will Ashby sunk four of his six three point attempts on the way to a game-high 16 points, adding five rebounds and two assists. Courtney Van Beest added 14 points and six boards, with Byron Richards (12) and Albert Margai (11) also finishing in double figures while Dave Ajumobi added nine points, five rebounds and three assists as Robert Youngblood’s side inflicted Kent’s second league defeat of the season.
Adetola Akomolafe – the only non-Barking Abbey player in the Kent line-up – led the visitors with an impressive 14 point, 16 rebound double-double while former Leopard Josh Steel finished with 11 points, four boards and three assists.
Leopards started poorly as Nathan Smith opened the scoring and the visitors rushed into a 9-0 lead. It took nearly four minutes before Ashby’s first triple of the night got them on the scoresheet, but the home side still trailed 13-5 with two first period minutes remaining. Captain Margai finally got the home side going with a trey, and Van Beest capped a 10-0 run to send Leopards into the first break with a 15-13 lead.
Scores from Ladi Brown and Van Beest extended that run to 14-0, and although former Leopards Duane Orija tied the score at 19, the Big Cats responded with a 10-2 run to take command and Van Beest’s basket sent them into the locker room with a 29-25 half-time lead.
Richards and Akomolafe exchanged treys to open the third period, but Oria and Akomolafe tied the scores and Steel briefly put the visitors ahead midway through the third period. But Ashby and Ajumobi hit treys in a 14-0 run as Leopards’ answered in devastating style, and they led 48-40 at the final break.
A three-point Steel play saw Leopards’ lead cut to five points at the start of the fourth period but that was as close as the visitors came, and five straight Ashby points took the advantage out to 13 with five minutes left as the Big Cats never looked back.
Leopards weather the Storm to go top –
Leopards returned to the top of NBL Division One with a thrilling 73-66 victory against Hemel Storm at Harlow Leisure Zone, on Saturday. With Kent Crusaders losing at Leicester Warriors earlier in the day, the two sides have identical win-loss records but the Big Cats have already sealed the head-to-head tiebreaker between the clubs.
The result wrapped up a perfect 8-0 season at Harlow, with the Big Cats’ remaining four home games scheduled for the Brentwood Centre. Against a franchise they had beaten in all 22 previous meetings, the Big Cats certainly made hard work of the win, being forced to come back from a 15 point first half deficit before collecting their 12th win in 16 league games.
Dave Ajumobi and Will Ashby led the way for Robert Youngblood’s team with 27 points apiece, Ajumobi adding 12 rebounds for another double-double and Ashby hitting five of his nine three point attempts and dishing out six assists.
Courtney Van Beest added 12 points and four rebounds as Leopards survived a poor shooting night from captain Albert Margai who failed to trouble the scorers with his 12 shots.
Bode Adeluola led Storm with 23 points despite shooting only seven-from-18 with recent acquisition Darren Best adding 14 points and seven boards Michael Darlow finished with 12 points for the visitors while former Leopards’ captain Carl Josey had six points to go with his 12 rebounds.
Ajumobi and Ashby got going early in the game as the home side hit the first five points but Storm answered with a 7-0 run and although Van Beest’s jump shot put the hosts back level the visitors then hit another seven unanswered points to force a time-out from Yuongblood with five minutes gone.
The move had only limited effect despite scores from Ashby and Van Beest as Storm closed out the period on a 14-4 run to lead 23-11 at the first break.
Ajumobi split a pair of free-throws to open the second period but Leopards’ offence remained static and Darlow drained a trey to put his side 30-15 up at the mid-stage of the quarter.
An Ashby triple off Margai’s assist finally got Leopards moving, and Ajumobi capped a 7-0 run before hitting a buzzer beater to cut the deficit to 34-27 going into the locker room at half-time.
Adeluola hit five straight points to restore Storm’s double digit lead to open the second half before Ashby hit a trey and a long two to drag Leopards back into the game. The Big Cats finally tightened up their defence and a pair of Ashby free-throws capped a 17-3 run which had the large crowd in its feet and put the home side ahead for the first time since the early stages at 46-44.
From then on it was nip and tuck, and an Ashby trey sent the teams into the final break level at 51 going into the final break. Ashby drained a trey to open the fourth period and a pair of Ladi Brown free-throws made it 59-55 before Adeluola made a rare four-point play on a Ronnie Baker foul to tie the game, and the sides were still level heading into the final six minutes.
Scores from Ashby and Ajumobi put Leopards ahead for the final time but Adeluola hit a three to set up a grandstand finish to make it a one point game heading into the final two minutes. An Ajumobi and-one made it a four point game before Adeluola halved the lead at the foul line before a great defensive play saw Ladi Brown hurl himself across the court to steal the ball and fittingly it was Brown who wrapped up the win with a breakaway dunk in the final seconds.
Another victory for the Comeback Kids –
Leopards moved another step closer to the league title on Sunday with a thrilling 63-60 victory against fourth place Derby Trailblazers. A noisy Brentwood Centre crowd were treated to another thriller as the Big Cats again did it the hard way, coming back from a 14 point deficit in the second period to all-but end Derby’s title hopes.
Robert Youngblood’s team were missing Will Ashby, Matic Zupanc and Lucas Winegarner due to the university finals in east London, but Brentwood-based Ashby raced back after the game and he hit the crucial basket with 15 seconds remaining to seal the win.
Albert Margai led the Big Cats with 20 points, six rebounds and three assists, while Byron Richards had three first period triples on the way to 14 points and seven rebounds. Ladi Brown and Courtney Van Beest each finished with eight points, and it was the home side’s three-point shooting which proved key in the end as they converted 11 of their 25 attempts from downtown.
Margai and Richards – twice – started the three-point display as Leopards raced into a 9-4 lead but that proved to be as good as it got in the first half as a pair 7-0 runs from the visitors saw them go into the first break 21-15 ahead. It didn’t get any better for the home side in the second period as Derby opened with a 6-1 run and although Ladi Brown hit a jump shot in reply, a three-pointer from American Chris Shalvoy made it 32-18 with 6:38 remaining in the half.
The hosts weren’t helped by Dave Ajumobi collecting his third personal foul on a questionable offensive call. But Leopards finally showed signs of life as Van Beest beat the shot clock to drain a trey before Derby coach Matt Shaw collected a technical foul for disputing whether the shot had gone off in turn. Ronnie Baker converted the free-throw and Ladi Brown hit a jump shot to complete a six-point offence. Margai brought his side to within three as he drained from downtown with 77 first half seconds remaining, but it was Derby who finished stronger to lead 39-32 at half-time.
That lead remaining intact for most of the third period before a 9-0 run capped by a pair of Ajumobi free-throws briefly gave Leopards their first lead since the opening minute, but Derby again finished strongly as Ajumobi picked up another offensive foul to tie the game at 49 heading into the final break. The run continued as Derby hit the first five points of the fourth period before Ashby joined the action and he hit a three to make it a two point game.
Margai put the Big Cats up by one heading into the final five minutes before Alex Denholm scored his only shot of the game to send Derby into the final three and half minutes with a three point lead. But that proved to be the final time the visitors would score, with some excellent defence from Leopards and scores from Ladi Brown and Margai put them ahead before Ashby sealed the victory.
Raheem May-Thompson led Derby with a 13 point, 11 rebound double-double, with Shalvoy adding ten points and six assists. John Stewart finished with nine points, while Dan Watts missed out on a double-double by two points having collected 14 boards to help the visitors out-rebound Leopards 48-37.
Leopards set up title decider
The Big Cats trailed throughout the first half but the introduction of Tosin Oyelese at half-time sparked a strong defensive performance after the break , with Ashby coming up with three key steals and the Big Cats outscored the home side 21-10 in the third period and 23-9 in the fourth to seal the win.
Dave Ajumobi led the way with 20 points, with Will Ashby, Byron Richards and Courtney Van Beest all adding ten as the Big Cats collected their 17th league win on the campaign.
Leopards started sluggishly with only Ajumobi troubling the scorers as the home side took an 8-2 lead forcing a timeout from Robert Youngblood.
The move worked to an extent at Albert Margai hit a trey to cut the Warriors’ lead to 14-13, and Ladi Brown kept them in touch with a put-back before the hosts finished the first period strongly to lead 20-15.
The second period didn’t get any better for the visitors, and despite Ajumobi providing an assist for Ladi Brown, Youngblood was forced to call another time-out with 5:40 on the clock and his side trailing 31-21. A score from Van Beast and a breakaway lay-up from Margai kept Leopards in the game, but they trailed 39-33 at half-time as Van Beest blew a lay-up following Ajumobi’s steal.
Oyelese made his first appearance of the game at the start of the second half and immediately cut the lead to four, and a trey from Richards followed by an Ashby basket gave the Big Cats their first lead of the game. Richards converted off another Ajumobi assist to make it a three-point ball game and spark a timeout from Warriors’ coach Karl Brown, but scores from the Land of Plenty by Richards and Ashby kept Leopards ahead and Van Beest sunk a pair at foul line to send Leopards into the final break 54-49 ahead.
That lead never looked in danger in the final stanza, with Ashby’s three-point play opening the fourth period scoring and Ladi Brown’s trey making it an 11-point game with two minutes gone.
The Big Cats were 67-54 up at the mid-point in the quarter, and a Margai drive to the basket made it a 15-point lead before an Ajumobi dunk wrapped things up for the champions-elect.
Leome Francis led Warriors with 16 points, but Carl Pearson was the only other Leicester player in double figures with ten.
D-Day for Leopards –
It’s D-Day for Leopards at the Brentwood Centre on Sunday as the Big Cats face Team Northumbria in a shoot-out for the Division One title.
Robert Youngblood’s side won 77-58 at Leicester Warriors on Saturday, and with Northumbria losing 91-70 at Reading, a win for the home side on Sunday afternoon will seal the second league title in four years for the Big Cats.
LEOPARDS ARE THE CHAMPIONS! –
In front of a sold-out Brentwood Centre crowd, Robert Youngblood’s team beat the only side who could deny them the title to spark jubilant scenes on the court at the game’s end.
In a game that Big Cats were ahead in for all bar 90 seconds captain Albert Margai led from the front with 22 points, six assists and five rebounds while American forward Byron Richards had his best game of the season with a 22 point, ten rebound double-double.
Brentwood-boy Will Ashby shrugged off foul trouble to finish with 15 points, four assists and three rebounds, while Dave Ajumobi added six boards to his nine points.
In contrast to recent games, the Big Cats started well with a pair of Margai jump-shots giving them a 4-0 lead and a pair of Ajumobi foul shots put them 7-2 up.
But the visitors weren’t the league form team for nothing and Lewis Champion – who finished with 14 points – capped an 8-2 run to give them their only lead of the game with 6:30 on the clock.
Youngblood’s time-out broke the run as Ashby hit a trey to spark an 8-0 run, and Ladi Brown hit a jumper to send Leopards into the first break 27-20 ahead.
Richards made it a nine point game with the opening score of the second period, but they then suffered one of their scoring droughts going almost six minutes without a point as the visitors tied the score at 29.
Richards eventually ended the scoreless run with five straight points before Ashby took the lead back up eight with another trey, and four Margai points sent the Big Cats into the locker room with a 41-35 lead.
Ajumobi added to that lead with a single free-throw a minute into the second half, but the first five minutes of the third period proved to be a war of attrition with the hosts’ lead hovering around the 4-6 point mark.
Northumbria captain Michael Di Stasio drained a trey to open the fourth period before Ladi Brown and Preston exchanged scores from the Land of Plenty to make it a one point game with seven minutes left.
Courtney Van Beest tripled that lead with a drive to the basket, only to see Di Stasio hit a pair at the line to leave Leopards with a one point lead at the five minute mark.
But the Big Cats they stepped up and six straight Richards point saw their lead increase from five to 73-64 with three minutes remaining, and Ajumobi made it a ten point game as he converted a three-point play before sinking a jump shot with 1:50 on the clock.
Van Beest kept the margin in double figures off a Margai assist before the Leopards captain wrapped up the win with a pair of free-throws and a jump shot before the home side played out the final minute and started the celebrations.
Dragons slain at Brentwood –
Leopards again finished strongly to reach the Final Four for a record breaking fifth straight seaon with a 82-76 victory against Bradford Dragons, on Sunday. In front of a big crowd including Brentwood Mayor Vickie Davies and Brentwood’s long-standing MP Eric Pickles, there was little choose between the two team but once again Leopards stepped up in the final four minutes – outscoring the visitors 14-6 to seal the game.
Leopard led 18-15 at the first break before seeing their advantage trimmed to 39-38 going into the locker room at half-time. Led by 23 points from American guard JP Davis, the visitors weren’t going away quietly and outscored Leopards 22-18 in the third period to take a 60-57 lead into the final break.
They were still 70-68 ahead with four minutes remaining when Dave Ajumobi sunk a trey off Albert Margai’s assist and the hosts never let that lead slip.Courtney Van Beest made it a three point game with a jump shot, and Ajumobi increased the margin to five with 1:47 remaining.
Miguel Lorenzo Leis gave his side hope with a three-pointer with 91 seconds remaining before Ajumobi split a pair of foul shots.Van Beest put his side five up with 42 seconds remaining but Bradford had one last push as Davis converted a three-point play to make it a two point game 20 seconds from time but fittingly it was captain Margai who sunk the free-throws that sealed the win.
Ajumobi led a balanced scoring effort with 22 points and eight rebounds, with Richards adding 14 points and Margai finishing with 13 points and five assists. Will Ashby shook off a quiet first half to hit three big treys in a 12 point haul while Van Beest missed out on a double-double by a single rebound having added ten points. Following the game the Big Cats were presented with the Division One trophy and medals by the visiting dignitaries.
Blood ready for play-offs –
Leopards coach Robert Youngblood is looking to complete the set of trophies when his side travel to Sheffield for the play-offs Final Four this weekend:
“I’m really pleased to be taking Leopards to the Final Four for a third straight season [Youngblood became coach after the Big Cats lifted the play-off title in 2012] and I’m looking forward to it.” said the 45-year-old. “I didn’t get the chance to coach in the semi-final last year [due to suspension] and it wasn’t the happiest weekend I’ve ever had. I feel like I need to amends, we’ve lost on the Saturday in each of the last two years, and I don’t want to repeat that. It’s the only trophy [in the top two divisions] I haven’t had my hands on either as a player or a coach, and I want to change that.”
Youngblood knows what to expect from a youth Kent side who exceeded all expectations this season by challenging for a top two spot until the final weekend of the season: “I scouted their play0off game against Reading, and they have a bunch of young guys who don’t give up” he said.
“They were 12 down in that game with seven minutes remaining, but they kept fighting to take the win. That’s what they did against us in February when we kinda’ threw the game away with too many turnovers in the last minute of regulation time when we had led all game. We have to out-rebound them and play the defence that we’re known for. We’ve been holding teams under 60 [points] and that’s been key to our success.”
Crusaders have been the Big Cats bogey side this season, winning three of the four meetings – with home court advantage being key in all four games. Coached by former Leopards’ player and assistant coach Lloyd Gardner, Crusaders have two former Big Cats in Josh Steel and Duane Orija who helped them win the treble in 2012.
Heartbreak for Leopards –
One of the most successful seasons in Leopards’ history ended in disappointment as they lost 61-51 against Kent Crusaders in the play-off semi-final on Saturday. A poor shooting display proved to be the Big Cats’ downfall as they converted under 27 percent of their field goal attempts and scored just 22 second half points.
Captain Albert Margai led Robert Youngblood’s team with 16 points, with Courtney Van Beest adding 11 points and Ladi Brown – who made his first start in place of unavailable American Byron Richards – finished with nine points and seven rebounds. Crusaders did a good job limiting the normally reliable Dave Ajumobi and Will Ashby to four points each, shooting a combined three-from-23 from the field. Former Leopard Josh Steel finished with 14 points and six boards before going on to win the MVP award as Crusaders won the final while another ex-Big Cat Dwayne Orija added ten rebounds to his seven points.
Steel opened the scoring in a tight first period before Ashby replied with a trey, and there was little to split the sides as Matic Zupanc scored from downtown to tie the game at 14-14 at the first break. Only a Van Beest jump shot and a single Ladi Brown free-throw troubled the scorers for Leopards in the first five and half minute of the second period as Kent opened a 23-17 lead.
Margai broke the run with a trey, only for Steel to reply in kind before a Lukas Winegarner tip-on and a three-point Ladi Brown play pulled the Big Cats back into the game.
Ashby tied things at 26-26 with a free-throw but it was Margai who ensured that the Big Cats were level at 29 going into the locker room at half-time as he grabbed his own miss and drained a three with 42 seconds on the clock.
The third period proved to be little short of a disaster for Youngblood’s team as Kent opened with ten straight points. A timeout from the Leopards’ play-caller finally stopped the rot as Van Beest broke the run but that was only a temporary reprieve as the offensive woes continued with Kent scoring another eight unanswered points to lead 47-31 with three minutes left in the quarter.
Winegarner scored Leopards’ second basket of the period, but although they finally put some points on the board with Ladi Brown hitting a trey, the Big Cats went into the final break trailing 54-40. Van Beest opened the fourth scoring and as Leopards’ defence tightened up, Ajumobi made it an eight point game with 5:30 remaining. A Van Beest tip-in cut the deficit to six at the midway stage of the period and Ajumobi maintained that margin with 3:39 on the clock.
But that was the last time Leopards got on the scoreboard as Crusaders wrapped up the win from the foul line and the Big Cats were left to taste semi-final defeat in the Final Four for the fourth time in five visits to the end-of-season tournament.
Ashby Wills his way to MVP award –
The shooting guard spent a short time with the Big Cats as a junior six years ago but returned to the club from Newham Neptunes in the summer and forced his way into the starting line-up early in the campaign.
Ashby was clearly delighted to receive the award, with is voted for by the club’s season ticket holders: “When I asked coach Youngblood if I could come along at the start of the season as play for the team I watched as a kid, I never thought that I’d end up as MVP for the league champions” he said.
Forward Dave Ajumobi finished second in the voting after a fine first season with the Big Cats while captain Albert Margai took third spot. The awards were presented by former Leopards’ chairman Fred Dicker.