Of all the 25 seasons, never has one shown so much promise, but finished so disastrously. The signings of England international Mike Martin – a former Leopard from the BBL days – and American guard AJ Roberts along with a link-up with Oaklands College set the Big Cats up for a promising season. But a seemingly never-ending injury list and some truly awful luck at times saw Leopards suffer a first relegation in their history.
Returning coach Steve Ogunjimi brought back the core his side from the previous year, with David Ajumobi returning after a season with Reading, and it was a mixed start to the campaign. A slimmed down National Trophy competition saw only three games, and a single point home loss against Hemel Storm in the first game proved key despite wins at Lituanica and Westminster. The league season didn’t start well, and Leopards’ only win in the next seven games was a walkover against Ipswich in the National Cup as the Suffolk side failed to show up at Harlow. To prove that every silver lining has a cloud, Leopards’ reward was a humiliating 94-67 loss at second division Kent Crusaders. Clearly things had to change, and following a loss at Derby Trailblazers an announcement was made, with Ajumobi, Ladi Brown and Bode Adeluola (who had struggled with injury after joining in the summer from Hemel) were all released. In their place came Perry Lawson, who had helped Mersey Tigers to a BBL treble a couple of years before, and former GB under-20 international Darrell Bethune.
The changes worked – at least in the short-term – with a crushing win at Westminster Warriors along with tight home wins against Solent Kestrels and Bradford Dragons, and although they then lost close games against Leicester Warriors and London Lituanica, Tosin Oyelese hit a game-winner against Lancashire Spinners to send Leopards into the Christmas break with a 4-7 record.
January proved to be possibly the most surreal month in the club’s history with first victories in an “international” game and a BBL Trophy tie before a run of losses started the slide into Division Two. A capacity crowd at Oaklands saw Wales comfortably beaten in an opener for 2017 and that provided a boost as Manchester Giants arrived at Brentwood for what proved to be a thriller – and after a decade of trying, the new Leopards finally got their first BBL Trophy victory. The good form continued two days later as Worthing were beaten 86-71 at the Brentwood Centre to complete an excellent first week of the year.
And that really was as good as it got as Leopards lost their next 12 league games, starting with a pair of defeats against Team Northumbria and Loughborough. The BBL Trophy provided a break, with Plymouth Raiders visiting for a second straight season. The previous game had ended with a brawl on the court and continued in the Plymouth Herald, and the fallout had seen Leopards initially not invited into the competition before Manchester Magic pulled out. Things were a bit more sane this time around as Raiders comfortably won in front of a big crowd at Brentwood.
The win against Giants had come at a cost, with the influential Martin suffering an Achilles injury which ruled him out for most of the remaining games. Leopards managed to beat the signing deadline to add big man Alex Scotland-Williamson, who had been with the club as a junior in their Ware days before going to college in the States. His debut came in a double-digit loss as Reading, but his season was abruptly ended the following week when he tore his quad muscle and damaged his knee in an overtime loss at Hemel.
And just when it appeared things couldn’t get worse, they certainly did. A heart-breaking loss at Manchester the day after losing Scotland-Williamson at Hemel was followed by the visit f basement side Westminster Warriors to Harlow. The Londoners had lost every game against Division One opposition but a truly dismal performance saw that run end with a 64-58 victory against the Big Cats. In hindsight the loss of Bethune with a season-ending injury in the following day’s defeat at Solent was the nail in the coffin, leaving them with few defensive options and a rapidly diminishing roster..
A narrow loss at Bradford gave some hope but the following day saw an abysmal 89-63 loss against Hemel at Brentwood. It was clear that something had to change, Ogunjimi had offered his resignation following the Westminster game and the day after the Hemel debacle it was agreed that the club and coach would part company.
With four games remaining and at least two wins needed, Leopards needed an immediate replacement – with assistant coach Roger Malpass unable to commit – and turned to Oaklands for a solution as Thomas Baker became the sixth head coach (initially on an interim basis) in the new club’s history.
Baker’s first game saw Leicester Warriors visit the Brentwood Centre and it proved to be another “what if” as a couple of key calls went against Leopards down the stretch as Karl Brown’s side went home with a 68-66 victory. It was a similar tale the following week as Leopards made the short trip to the University of East London to face Lituanica and led for the first 39 minutes of regulation time before a couple of shocking calls from a ((Lithuanian) referee saw the game go into overtime. The first extra period proved to be a war of attrition with only eight points shared but the second period saw the hosts live at the foul line as they edged Leopards out 88-83.
So it was do or die for the trip to Myerscough to face Lancashire Spinners. Martin had clambered off the treatment table to play at Lituanica, finishing with 19 points, but he was in no condition to play back-to-back games. Preparations weren’t helped by the mini bus getting caught up in the Brentwood marathon for an hour, but the Big Cats started strongly they built on a 30-20 first period lead to go into the locker room 53-38 up. But after a half-time whine from the coaches, Spinners started the second half strongly and the previous day’s 50 minute game together with the nightmare trip began to take their toll and the lead was shaved to 70-62 at the final break. The fourth period was like torture as Leopards’ advantage , gradually ebbed away, but although Spinners briefly grabbed the lead, the Big Cats were 82-81 up going into the final play of the game. Leopards were still in Division One when Dave Walsh’s shot left his hand and the buzzer sounded a split second later, but it dropped and Division Two basketball beckoned.
We live in difficult times at the moment that put things in perspective. But this was horrific. Tears were shed in the locker room, Spinners were fairly shitty about it all (and their car crash of a 2017/18 season was a joy to behold as a result), but somehow we all got home in one piece.
There was still one more league game to play and Baker collected his first victory in double overtime at Worthing (the last side Ogunjimi’s Leopards had beaten) and such was the success Leopards were enjoying off the court that they staged a friendly against Oaklands to raise some cash for the following season’s attempt to escape from the abyss they call Division Two.
I still haven’t really got over it.
Oaklands link for Leopards –
Levett Essex Leopards are delighted to announce an agreement with Oaklands College to form an exciting partnership over the coming years for elite player development. The partnership will allow Oaklands Academy player’s opportunities to compete at the highest levels of senior competition, whilst supporting the Big Cats with elite youth players.
The Leopards will benefit by utilising the outstanding basketball facilities as well as the world class coaching development at Oaklands College. The Big Cats side will continue to play out of their home at Brentwood & Harlow, looking to add the Wolfpack to their current fan base.
Off the back of the under-18s winning the NBDL National Championships last weekend, Oaklands will now have a complete competitive pathway. The academy program can now offer opportunities in Division One, the EABL, under-18 NBL and the NBDL (Division Four)
Leopards’ General Manager Dave Ryan said: “We’re delighted to be working with Oaklands, and excited about the possibilities it brings both organisations. The have some fantastic facilities which can help us immensely, and although we’ll continue to have one session a week in London during 2016/17 we believe that a massive upgrade in practice facilities will be a real benefit.
“We’ve always wanted to work with a qualify junior set-up and showed in 2012 – when we won the treble – that it’s possible to combine the best senior players in the area with talented youngsters who can provide key back-up and develop their game. Evan [Walshe] showed with us this season that he could be an important member of our side, and we hope we can develop more players for the junior national teams.”
Oaklands Wolves Basketball Director Michael Ball had this to say “this is a hugely significant agreement for the Academy. It will enable every one of our current and future male performance players to access the appropriate playing opportunity at the weekend. I want to thank Essex Leopards for agreeing to work with us to develop talented British players.”
Leopards’ coach Steve Ogunjimi is also delighted to with the new partnership: “I’m very happy to be working with Oaklands. It’s a perfect opportunity for both the club and the players.”
Evan’s off to Miami –
Levett Leopards’ guard Evan Walshe has fulfilled his dreams of playing in the States by signing for Barry University.
The 18-year-old guard will join the NCAA Division II side for the 2016/17 season having been a regular in the Leopards’ team that finished sixth in the Division One table this year.
The Miami-based university include ex-Leopards’ coach Billy Mims among their former coaches and had a successful 2015/16 season, finishing with a 26-7 record and reaching the Sunshine State Conference final before losing 93-75 at Lincoln Memorial.
Walshe was the first Oaklands College player to link up with the Big Cats, paving the way for the formal link-up that the two organisations announced last week.
“It’s a great move for Evan, and we hope that he is successful in the States” said Leopards’ general manager Dave Ryan. “It shows that giving young players a chance to p;ay for Leopards can help their development and we hope that Evan is first of many players that we can help improve their chances of playing in America.”
Leopards’ coach Steve Ogunjimi admitted that he would have liked the chance of coaching Walshe for one more year: “I’m disappointed that Evan won’t be with us next season as it think he could have played a big part for us” he said. “But I’m delighted for him that he’s got the chance to play in the States, and I wish him all the best.”
Leopards look for a Giant killing –
Levett Leopards will face Manchester Giants in the BBL Trophy first round, following Wednesday night’s draw. The game will be played at the Brentwood Centre on Friday January 6, tip-off 8pm.
The Giants will be looking for an improved season after finishing the 2015/16 campaign second-from-bottom of the BBL Championship table with eight wins from 33 games. The game will see a return to Brentwood for Giants’ coach Yorick Williams who played with the original Big Cats in their final season, 2002/3, when he was a team-mate of the current Leopards play-caller Steve Ogunjimi.
While the new Leopards and Giants have never met, their predecessors met on many occasions and the final ever game for the original Giants was a heavy defeat against the Big Cats at Brentwood early in the 2000/1 season. The new Giants have struggled since their formation in 2012, only qualifying for the play-offs once in four years and recording only one win in the two knockout competitions.
It is the tenth time in the 13-year history of the new Big Cats that they have been invited into the league cup competition of the British League and they are one of four non-BBL taking part in the 16-team competition. Last season saw Leopards host Plymouth Raiders in front of a big crowd at the Brentwood Centre in what proved to be a feisty affair, while the previous season saw them go agonizingly close to knocking Surrey Heat out of the competition
Leopards’ general manager Dave Ryan is delighted that the Big Cats will again compete in the competition: “It will be good to test ourselves against BBL competition again, we’re proud to have been invited into the competition more than any other non-BBL team.
“We’d like to thank Brentwood Leisure Trust for their help in ensuring that we can again enter the competition. It’ll be good to host Giants, and those of us who’ve been around long to remember him playing for Leopards will be pleased to Yorick back at Brentwood.
Tosin’s back for Leopards –
Levett Essex Leopards have announced their first signing of the summer, with the news last season’s club MVP Tosin Oyelese will return to the Big Cats. The 6’ 5” forward re-signs for Steve Ogunjimi’s side for what will be his third season with Essex club.
Oyelesie played only a back-up role when Leopards won the National League in 2015 but the experience he gained in that title winning team saw him step up to become a key member of the team last season, regularly starting for Ogunjimi’s team. He was rewarded by the club’s supporters when they voted him Most Valuable Player at the end of the campaign.
Ogunjimi is delighted to make the 23-year-old his first signing of the summer and believe he will continue to improve: “I’m very happy to have last year’s MVP returning for the coming season” he said.
“Tosin brings hard work and effort to our team which has been the motor to our success. He is one season away from being considered one of – if not the – best rebounder in our league, and he continues to develop offensively.“This really is a break-out year for Tosin, look out for more of his trademark doubles for the Big Cats!”
Oyelese can’t wait to return to action with the Leopards: “I am overjoyed to return to the Leopards’ family. I’m also looking forward to continuing to give my all on the court and pushing towards having the best season yet!”
Young players will have the chance to be coached by Oyelese prior to the visit to Team USA Select to the Brentwood Centre on Sunday September.
Bennett’s back for Big Cats –
Levett Essex Leopards’ coach Steve Ogunjimi is delighted to have re-signed guard Dougie Bennett ahead of the 2016/17 NBL Division One season.
The 23-year-old returns to the Big Cats for a second season having been chosen as the club’s Most Improved Player by Ogunjimi at the end of the last campaign.
“I have known Dougie for a while now and he is a high character guy on and off the court” said Ogunjimi.
“His on court savvy and clutch shooting helped us win a number of games last season and I am very happy to have him back on board.”
Ogunjimi believes that Scottish international Bennett will play a bigger part for his team this season: “Dougie has earned a more consistent role in my plans for the team this year and I am very excited to see how he grabs the opportunity.”
Bennett, who had previous Division One experience with Newham Neptunes, is looking forward to another season with the Big Cats:
“After a successful season personally for me, it was a no-brainer to return as I have unfinished business” he said.
“I felt last year I gave everything I could coming back from injury, however this year I’m fitter and healthier than I have ever been.
“Leopards is such a fantastic club with so many influential people in and around it, it feels like I will get the support needed to further my career and I hope I can bring every success with me to the Leopards.
“Hopefully we can bring home the championship this season.”
Hitchman returns for Big Cats –
Levett Essex Leopards’ coach Steve Ogunjimi continues to build his side ahead of the new season with the re-signing of forward Justin Hitchman.
The 6’7” big man joined last summer from Division One rivals Westminster Warriors had an impressive season with the Leopards, and kept the club’s fans entertained with some massive dunks.
Ogunjimi is understandably pleased to have Hitchman back and believes he can be a key part of his side: “I am very happy to have Justin back on our roster for the upcoming season” he said.
“He is a powerhouse of a player who scores, defends and rebounds very well for us. He carried us to a few wins last season and I expect his second year with us to be even better now he is comfortable in our system.
“Justin also brings a very competitive and in-your-face attitude to the team and I love that. I hope it spreads amongst our players to become our overall identity.”
Brian and Jamie return for USA game –
As Levett Essex Leopards prepare for the visit of Team USA Select to the Brentwood Centre on Sunday, coach Steve Ogunjimi has re-signed two more of last season’s squad.
Big man Jamie Hayes and guard Brian Nguru both return after encouraging debut seasons at Division One level, and the Big Cats’ coach is pleased to have them back.
“I am very happy to have secured Jamie and Brian for the upcoming season” he said.
“They were both players that really did what I asked of them on the court and brought some great energy when needed in minimal minutes.
“I was very keen to have Brian and Jamie back this season as they made massive plays in big games when the team needed a spark and those are the kind of guys we need coming off the bench if we want to win this year.”
Ogunjimi expects to field a mixture of returning players and newcomers when touring side Team USA Select arrive at Brentwood on Sunday for a 4pm tip-off.
The Americans are bringing 45 players to the UK for an exhausting tour which will them split into three squads to play more than 50 games over a two and half week,
There will also be a pre-game camp for youngsters to train with a Leopards’ players between 2.30-3.30pm, with the coaching and game ticket costing just £6. See www.leopardsbasket.co.uk for more details
The USA team is made of players who have finished their college careers in the States and are looking for pro jobs in Europe. Several have gone on to successful careers in England including big man Greg Hernandez who help the Big Cats win the National Trophy in 2013.
The Big Cats have been regular opponents for the Americans over the years, playing them at Brentwood, Capital City Academy and Crystal Palace as well as training games in east London. Sean Killmartin’s side also visited the Brentwood Centre last season, and with Will Ashby scoring 22 and Ladi Brown 20, Steve Ogunjimi made a winning start to his career as Leopards’ coach with a 76-67 victory. The sides also met in a closed-door scrimmage game just before the start of the season with Leopards winning a thriller 84-83.
The re-signing of Hayes and Nguru comes as captain Albert Margai has returned to BBL side Surrey Scorchers. The 28-year-old spent two seasons with the Guildford-based club between 2011 and 2013 before helping the Big Cats win the Division One title in 2015.
“It’s a shame Albert is moving on” said Leopards’ general manager Dave Ryan. “But he’s been straight with us and hasn’t messed us around, we understand if he wants another shot at the BBL. We’ll miss him, he’ll always be the captain who led us to the title in 2015.”
Big Cats edged out –
A big crowd at the Brentwood Centre saw Leopards edged out 81-77 by Team USA Select, on Sunday.
The Big Cats field a mixture of bench players from last season and trialists. Tosin Oyelese and Justin Hitchman both missed the game due to injury, with several other players unavailable due to Courtney Van Beet’s wedding, but the makeshift line-up which starts for Brian Nguru, Jamie Hayes (right) and Dougie Bennett put in a good performance before losing a thriller in the final seconds.
Veteran big man Errol Seaman returned after ten years away having helped the Big Cats win the National Cup in 2005/6, and there was a familiar face in guard Josh Johnson among the six trialists. But it was youngster Shaq Lewis who stole the show on his Leopards’ debut with 25 points, nine rebounds and a couple of assists. The visitors’ lack of size saw them outrebounded 49-39 by the Big Cats but they used their quickness to cause 24 turnovers which proved crucial down the stretch.
There was little to choose between the teams in the early stages as they shared 20 points in the first five minutes before Leopards looked set to take a lead into the first break only to see the visitors hit a late three-point play to tie the game at 21.
It was a two point game in favour of the Americans heading into the final five minutes of the first half before a crucial stage of the game saw Leopards outscored 15-7 to trail 45-35 at half-time.
Although Lewis made it a single digit game with the opening score of the second half, it appeared to have got away from the hosts as Team USA opened a 52-40 lead at the mid-stage of the third period.
But free-throws from Nguru and Lewis, together with a fast-break from Jamie Hayes saw the hosts claw their way back into the game Nguru cut the deficit to 60-55 at the final break.
Scores from Fraser Glass and Bennett made it a three point game early in the fourth period, and Nguru kept them within five points with as many minutes remaining with a jump shot. Lewis and Jamal Hoffman exchanged baskets before a pair of Lewis close range efforts made it a three point game with 46 seconds remaining.
Johnson set up a grandstand finish with a jump shot six seconds from time to make it a four point deficit but with Leopards forced to foul to stop the club, the visitors wrapped things up at the charity stripe.
Bennett and Nguru finished with 13 points apiece for the Big Cats, while Seaman and Georgian trialist Nodar Tenieshivili each pulled down six boards for the home side with Seaman adding five assists in his first game since tearing his Achilles a year ago.
Isaac Sims led Team USA Select with 25 points with Hoffman adding 17.
Leopards nab Ajumobi –
Levett Essex Leopards have strengthened their side ahead of the new NBL season with the signing of forward David Ajumobi. The 28-year-old was a key member of the Big Cats’ Division One title winning side in 2015 and his return for a second spell with the Essex club is a major boost for Steve Ogunjimi’s side.
Ajumobi spent the 2015/16 campaign with Division One rivals Reading Rockets, helping them to third place in the table as well as the finals of both the play-offs and National Cup where they found an all-conquering Manchester Magic team too strong.
The former Newham Neptunes player came back to haunt the Big Cats in their first meeting with Rockets, draining a dagger three to send a National Trophy game into overtime which Reading won in overtime.
Ogunjimi’s team gained revenge in the league with a pair of thrilling victories, but the Leopards’ play-caller knows the importance of his latest signing:
“Signing David is a big deal for the entire Leopards organisation” he said. “He is a player that naturally leads through his play and personality, and gives us one of the strongest and most consistent players in the league at both ends of the floor. David is also a fan favourite here at the Leopards, so I know this signing will give our supporters something more to cheer about!”
Ajumobi is excited about his return to the Big Cats: “I’m glad to be back on the Leopards team. Joining the squad along with some key players is an exciting prospect and I’m looking forward to bringing some silverware to the club.”
Ladi returns for Big Cats –
Levett Essex Leopards continue to build for the 2016/17 NBL season with the announcement that guard/forward Ladi Brown will return for a third season.
The 30-year-old joined the Big Cats in January 2015 having played for Newham Neptunes the previous season and helped Leopards clinch the Division One title three months later.
He returned under new coach Steve Ogunjimi for the 2015/16 campaign and has now signed up for the new season, leaving the Leopards’ play-caller a happy man:
“I said it all the way through last season that Ladi is one of, if not the best, players at both ends of the floor in our when fit and on his game” he said. “Ladi is a player that really allows us to plug weaknesses in the game with his multi-skilled approach.
“When we needed Ladi to score a lot for us last season he was able to do that, but this season with some more help on the offensive end we’ll give him the freedom to play to all the facets of his game and really fill the stats sheet.”
Brown is excited about the forthcoming season: “I’m hoping we can build on our success from last year” he said. “We have a new-look team as we lose a few familiar faces, but I’m excited to see if we can form an identity early and string some wins together.”
Will departs – and returns! –
Levett Essex Leopards shooting guard Will Ashby has left the club to join BBL side London Lions – but he’ll be back soon!
The 24-year-old departs the Big Cats after two years, having won the club’s MVP award in 2015 after helping us win the Division One title.
He joins a Lions’ side who finished sixth in the BBL Championship last season but he’ll make a quick return to face the Leopards at the Brentwood Centre on Saturday September 17 (7pm) for the Battle of the Big Cats.
“It’s funny how the first game I will be wearing a Lions uniform will be against the Essex Leopards, where I have had an amazing last two years” said Ashby. “I’m really looking forward to that, should be fun.”
“We’d like to thank Will for his time at the club” said General Manager Dave Ryan. “We will him all the best for future and look forward to seeing him back at Brentwood next week.”
England international signs for Leopards –
As Levett Essex Leopards prepare for a pair of games at the Brentwood Centre this weekend, they have been boosted by the signing of former England international Mike Martin.
The Big Cats host Hemel Storm in the National Trophy on Friday (8pm) before London Lions are the visitors at 7pm the following evening.
The vastly experience Martin is expected to play a big part for the Steve Ogunjimi’s team this season and with Dave Ajumobi having signed last week alongside the returning Tosin Oyelese, Justin Hitchman and Jamie Hayes, the Big Cats have a powerful front court this season.
Martin started his professional career with the original Leopards in 1999, playing for them for two years before joining the now defunct BBL side Thames Valley Tigers. Spells in France and Germany followed before he returned to the BBL for a six-year stint with Guildford Heat where he won all four pieces of silverware available as well as helping England to bronze in the 2006 Commonwealth Games.
A two year spell with London Lions was followed by two years with Leopards’ Division One rivals Westminster Warriors where he provided tough opposition for the Big Cats, and Ogunjimi is delighted to add the 6’6” forward to his roster:
“I am very happy to be bringing Mike back to the Leopards’ family” he said. “I have had him in my sights all summer and to have now signed him is excellent news. Mike is a seasoned veteran player who still has the agility and athleticism at both ends of the floor to dominate at both ends of the floor in our league. He also brings great leadership and experience to the team while will only inspire and challenge his team-mates as we battle for silverware this season.”
“I always said we’d bring Mike back one day” said Leopards general manager Dave Ryan. “It took a bit longer than I expected, but it’s great to have him back with the Leopards. When we played at Westminster last season he showed what a great competitor he still is. Ronnie Baker showed just how valuable veteran leadership is when we won the league in 2015, and I’m sure Mike will be a massive asset to our team.”
Get ready for the Shaq attack! –
Levett Essex Leopards have added to their forward line with the signing of Shaq Lewis. The 23-yeae-old having had previous experience with Buckinghamshire University, NBL Division Two side London United and BBL club Surrey United.
He made an instant impact on his Leopards’ debut as he finished a rebound short of a double-double with 25 points in Sunday’s narrow loss against Team USA Select at the Brentwood Centre.
Coach Steve Ogunjimi is delighted to have landed the 6’6” forward: “Shaq is very good young and energetic player who has ability above his years” he said. “Shaq had a great knack of putting himself in the right position to score and grab offensive rebounds. Defensively he bothers players with his athleticism and we are very happy to add him to the team. I think he’s definitely going to be one to watch this season!”
Leopards’ latest signing is looking forward to joining the Big Cats: “’I am extremely excited about joining the Leopards for the upcoming season and I’m prepared for any challenges we will face along the way” he said.. “I’m ready to work hard and bring some energy to the team, through my intensity and passion on the court. “This is a great opportunity as it can propel me forward in my career and help me in achieving my ultimate goals.”
Levett love it for three more years
Leopards have received a massive boost ahead of the start of the new NBL season with the news that main sponsors Levett Consultancy have signed a three sponsorship deal with the club. Levett became the club’s main sponsors at the start of the 2015/16 season and agreed a new one-year deal in May, but the Ongar-based firm have now extended that until the summer of 2019.
“It’s a massive boost to have Levett on board for the next three years” said General Manager Dave Ryan. “To have the security of a title sponsor until 2019 is excellent news for us.
“The support they have us last season was extremely valuable and helps us continue to put a winning team on the floor at both the Brentwood Centre and Harlow Leisurezone. We’re looking forward to working with Paul and his team again.”
Paul Levett, Managing Director of Levett Consultancy, is pleased to be linking up with Essex’s only professional basketball club again: “Levett Consultancy is delighted to be returning as the Leopards’ title sponsor” he said. “We see this as a long term partnership helping the organisation grow and promoting healthy living to adults and children alike via our established community programme. This year will see our partnership go to the next level with new ideas that we hope fans will like and importantly help the Leopards rise to the top of the league once again.”
Heart-breaker for Leopards –
Leopards were made to pay for foul shooting as they went down 69-68 against Hemel Storm, on Friday evening.
Steve Ogunjimi’s side converted just ten of their 24 visits to the free-throw line, and despite having 14 more field goal attempts and forcing nine more turnovers than Storm, a Leon Henry buzzer-beating three consigned them to defeat.
David Ajumobi appeared to have made the perfect return to the Leopards when he drove to the basket and scored with 3.2 seconds remaining to put his side 68-66 ahead, only to see the visitors take the National Trophy victory in stunning style
Justin Hitchman led the Big Cats with 15 points, with Martin adding 14 and Ladi Brown 13. Martin and Brown both recorded double-doubles with ten rebounds, with Martin adding a team-high four assists.
Martin marked his return to the club after 15 years away by opening the scoring from the free-throws line, and a Brian Nguru trey capped a 6-0 start for the Big Cats.
That was as good as it got for the hosts, though as wrapped up the first period with a 7-2 run to take a 17-16 lead.
Five Ajumobi points helped his side tie the game at 25 midway through the second period, and five Hitchman points followed by a Brown basket sent the Big Cats into the locker room at half-time with a 36-34 lead.
Leopards’ woes at the foul line were particularly prevalent in the third period as they scored just two of their ten attempts and with Jack Burnell – whose father Jon coached the Big Cats for six years – hitting eight straight points midway through the quarter, the visitors went into the final break with a 52-48 lead.
A second trey of the game from Hitchman gave Leopards a 53-52 lead early in the fourth period and Martin tied the game at 61 heading into the final two minutes.
A three point play from Martin set up the grandstand finish before Henry – who appeared to travel before the shot – broke the hosts’ hearts.
Henry led the visitors with 13 points and five assists, with Michael Darlow adding 12 points and eight boards.