The National Cup holds a special place in Leopards’ history it was the first piece of silverware won by both the first and second version of the club, with the Big Cats winning the competition three times as well as suffering heart-breaking defeats in two other finals
All roads generally led to Sheffield, and our first appearance in the final saw the home-town Sharks beaten 87-79 for what proved to be the first half of a league and cup double for Billy Mims’ team . Incredibly that eight point win was twice as big as the next highest margin in a Cup final involving Leopards as the other four games were decided by a total of nine points
Two years later it was back to the steel city to face the Sharks again – it must be great having finals at home – and the signing of guard Rashod Johnson that week wasn’t enough for Mims’ side to spring an upset against a side who proved something of a nemesis that season as we went down 67-65
By the time Leopards returned to Sheffield Arena in January 2001 Mims had departed and – almost inevitably – was coach of their opposition that day, Leicester Riders. The pressure and hype surrounding Mims’ successor Bob Donewald – they hated each other with a vengeance – proved to be Leopards’ undoing in the end as a below par performance saw them suffer another heartbreaker 84-82.
The last National Cup game played by the original Leopards came at the Brentwood Centre in November 2002 as old rivals London Towers won 100-89 but the oldest piece of silverware in English basketball obviously missed the Big Cats as in our absence it had been revamped. Throughout Leopards’ time in the BBL it had seen a handful of Division One clubs invited to make up numbers to 16 teams, but during Leopards’ year out the BBL clubs had departed to form their own competition following a row over import players, and the Cup now comprised of teams from all three national league divisions. As members of Division One, Leopards received a bye in the first round before they made their second debut in the competition with a win West Herts Warriors before losing to Division Two champions-elect Nottingham Knights at Wodson Park.
Leopards’ second year exceeded expectations as four victories at three different home venues sent the Big Cats into the final. Despite that row with the BBL, Basketball England still staged the final alongside the BBL Cup final and by the end of Leopards’ big game there were around 6,000 people watching a thriller. Troy Selvey took the MVP award for the Big Cats but it was Sam Salter who sunk the free-throws to seal a 79-75 victory against Reading Rockets.
It took six seasons for Leopards to return to the final, and it was back to Sheffield though this time it was at Ponds Forge for the big game against Bristol Academy Flyers. It didn’t seem likely to be another close final as Leopards trailed by 14 at the first break and were still 12 down going into the fourth period before a Big Cats side containing two teenage starters and several others on their roster came roaring back to win 64-63.
There’s been two other semi-final and a further two quarter-final appearances since then, and hopefully – one day when the madness is over – we’ll get to go to a sixth final.