With the final positions in the group already settled, and Leopards’ defence of the competition they won last season already over, there was only pride to play for at Rivermead as the sides matched up in a dress rehearsal for the National Cup semi-final at Brentwood on December 9 .
Captain Carl Josey led the way for the Big Cats with 19 points and four rebounds while Kris Clark finished with 16 points, and Howard Crawford had another double-double with 11 points and as many boards .
The Big Cats overcame a slow start as Rockets poured in the first seven points, and nearly five minutes had elapsed before Crawford opened the visitors’ account, but it was Leopards’ bench who dragged them back into the game as Lawrence Brown sparked a 10-2 run to cut the deficit to one .
Rockets closed the period with four straight points to lead 17-12 at the first break, but Brown opened the second quarter scoring for Robert Youngblood’s team and Siman Stewart gave them their first lead of the game with 4:33 on the clock .
Stewart hit six straight points on his way to a 15 point night, and Leopards only briefly trailed during the rest of the half as Ish Fontaine sent them into the locker room leading 35-33 despite Josh Wilsher’s buzzer beater for the hosts .
Back-to-back threes from Josey saw Leopards open the second half well, and scores from Clark and Sam Iwueke helped them lead by seven and the mid-point in the third period before a 7-0 Reading run capped by Danny Carter’s basket saw the game tied at 49 with 4:29 on the clock .
Iwueke hit a pair at the line to put the Big Cats back up by three, but it was Rockets who finished the third period strongly as Wilsher sent them into the final break with a 59-58 lead .
Carter made it a three point game to open the fourth period before Stewart launched an 8-0 run which saw the Big Cats take a 66-61 lead with 6:14 on the clock .
Wilcher hit four points in a 6-0 Rockets’ run which saw them briefly regain the lead before a pair of Clark free-throws gave Leopards a lead they would never lose again .
A pair of Josey free-throws put Leopards 77-72 ahead heading into the final two minutes before four straight Carter points saw the visitors’ lead cut to a single point going into the last minute.
Crawford made it a three point game when he grabbed his own miss and stuffed the ball home before Ivan Emanuely hit a pair at the line with 37 seconds on the clock following a foul from Stewart.
What proved to be the winning shot came with 16 seconds on the clock as Josey collected a fine assist from Clark and buried from downtown to make it a four point game, and Courtney Van Beest wrapped the win up at the foul line.
Top scorers for Rockets were Wilcher with 25 points, Carter with 14 and Lewis Champion with 11.
In front of a big crowd at the Brentwood Centre, Robert Youngblood’s team shook poor second and third quarters to finish the game on an 11-2 run and wrap up their third straight 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 .
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.
The Big Cats matched the high-flying Rockets for most of the game, but a 16-2 run during the final four minutes of the third period proved to be the difference between the teams .
Division One’s league scorer Hafeez Abdul had another massive night as he finished with a 27 point, 14 rebound double-double, while Jerrelle Okoro added 16 points, seven rebounds, and three assists . Ray Akpofure also had a double-double with 13 points and 12 boards.
AJ Carr led Reading with 16 points and six rebounds before being ejected following a second technical foul, while Nick Rihards and Matias Boho added 14 points apiece with six and eight rebounds respectively and Liam Davis had 13 points and as many boards .
Abdul scored the game’s first points before captain Chuck Duru hit a try, and Leopards played easily their best basketball of the season in the first 26 minutes of the game .
Back-to-back Abdul triples gave Leopards a six point lead after seven minutes and he took his tally to 12 points as the Big Cats went into the first break with a 22-17 lead .
Only Akpofure troubled the scorer in the first four minutes of the second period as Richahrds hit four points in an 8-2 run but Leopards stayed in touch and Akpofure dunked before Abdul hit three straight free-throws after being clattered by Boho to send sides into the locker room tied at 37 .
It was nip and tuck in the early stages of the second half but a pair of three-pointers from Okoro treys gave Leopards a 51-46 lead before the key run from Reading capped by a buzzer-beating Asher Ndah triple sent Rockets into the final break leading 62-53 .
Okoro sunk his third trey of the evening to open the final stanza and Akpofure also scored from downtown to make it a five point game midway through the period .
Carr replied with a trey before a single free-throw from Prince Larty
– playing his first game for a month following an ankle injury – and an Akpofure basket reduced the arrears back to five with three minutes remaining .
Scores from Abdul and Duru saw Leopards head into the final minute still trailing by five but Davis dunked the ball to make it a seven point game and Rockets wrapped up the win from the foul line to give the scoreline a flattering look.