The BBL Trophy is – along with the National Cup – one of two competitions that both incarnations of the Leopards have played in. It’s one of two peripheral competitions run by the BBL, traditionally the opening stage was run on a variety of group basis to give sides extra game, but in recent years it has been played on knockout basis.
The first couple of seasons of the first Leopards saw them fail to trouble the knockout stages but 1996/7 saw them win all five group games but their reward was a two-leg tie against Towers (who were exempt until the quarter-final due to playing in Europe) rather than playing a side who’d scraped into the knockout stage. A disastrous 111-79 home loss ended any hopes in the competition.
The following season saw Leopards again go 5-0 in the qualifiers, with the players each receiving a set of pens from sponsors Uniball as a reward (yes, seriously) as a reward. The draw for the knockout stage again proved harsh for the Big Cats as they faced southern group runners-up Thames Valley Tigers, who’d they’d already beat 101-94 on the road, but tight wins in both games saw them go through with a 179-165 aggregate victory. The trip to Sheffield Sharks in the first leg of the semi-final proved to be a disaster as a lack of knowledge about how to play two-leg basketball saw them chase the deficit down the stretch and Sharks were able to take advantage and pull away to win 103-85. The home leg at London Arena saw Leopards fight back to level the aggregate early in the fourth period but that proved to be as good as it got and although the Big Cats won 90-82, they were out for another year.
That proved to be as close as Leopards ever came to reaching the final, going out in the group stage in 1998/99 before again winning the group the following year but losing the quarter-final against Thames Valley at the NIA in Birmingham. 200/01 saw Leopards post a 4-2 group record before losing against Newcastle in Coventry. The Big Cats returned to Coventry the following year after finishing third in a six team group and an 83-78 win put them in the semi-final four the second time in club history. It was a long weekend for both Leopards and their semi-final opponents Chester Jets, as the sides met in a league game at Brentwood Centre on the Friday, in the semi-final the following day before both sides had league fixtures on the Sunday. Sadly for the Big Cats, the only win was at Leicester at the end of that exhausting weekend. Leopards’ final season the BBL saw them fail to progress out of the group stage, an 83-81 overtime loss at Birmingham Bullets consigning them to second place.
It was something of a surprise when the new Leopards received an invite to enter the competition after an eighth placed finish on their Division One debut, but it was proof of the weight that the name carried. There were some reasonable performances from Leopards and a couple of big crowds at Wodson Park, but all four games resulted in double digit defeats – though it was a sense of pride for the people who had restarted the club when they took to the floor against Towers. It was a similar tale the following year with three losses, but after two seasons with no Division One clubs included, Leopards were back in the big-time with an invite. The competition’s group stage had been replaced with a knockout stage with EBL sides guaranteed a home game. Which sounded great, except Chester were due to play in the BBL Cup final two days after their proposed trip to Brentwood and they flatly refused to play the game. The rules stated that the game could only be postponed if it was 24 hours before the final, but there was no way the BBL were going to kick one of their own clubs out of the competition – and there was no other date available at Brentwood.. In the end (and after many, many emails/phone conversations) an agreement was reached. The game would be played in Chester, Jets would pay Leopards £500 to cover travel costs and some of the lost revenue, and MK Lions would play in a friendly at Brentwood on the original date of the Chester game. Financially it was a real result for cash-strapped Leopards, although a 98-57 hammering at the hovel they called Northgate Arena wasn’t a lot of fun and nor was sitting in gridlock for three hours while returning the minibus next day.
The competition reverted to BBL clubs only after that but the 2011/12 season saw Leopards accept a late invitation following the collapse of Essex Pirates (whose plan for world domination had just one flaw – they had no money) and although their hopes were hit by injuries to key players David Buchberger and Ousman Krubally, their performances in the four games against MK Lions and Leicester Riders were decent and Coach Dejan Mihevc later said that the experience helped the younger players later in the season as they went on to complete a league, cup and play-off treble.
Helping the BBL out by stepping in after Pirates sunk saw Leopards rewarded with a run of invites over the next few years, with the following couple of seasons saw heavy home losses against high-flyers Newcastle Eagles and Leicester Riders. The 2014/15 season saw the Big Cats host Surrey United and the eventual Division One champions went agonisingly close to a first win in the competition as a National League team before some controversial calls down the stretch saw the visitors sneak home 69-64.
Normal service was resumed with a heavy home loss against Plymouth Raiders the following season with the game ending with a bit of brawl (mainly handbags stuff, although captain Albert Margai suffered a cut eye) and continued with a war of words between Raiders’ Daryl Corletto (“not a real coach, just someone they let hold the clipboard”) and Leopards GM Dave Ryan in the Plymouth Herald.
The fallout from that was Leopards didn’t initially receive an invite for the 2016/17 competition. But Manchester Magic turned down the chance to meet neighbours Giants (not the club the only Big Cats had played back in their BBL days) and once again Leopards stepped into the breech. And what a great decision that proved to be as – finally – they won a game in the competition. It was heart attack time down the stretch as Leopards eeked out an 86-84 victory. Darrell Bethune led the way against a side coached by former Leopard Yorick Williams, finishing with five three pointers in his 32-point haul, adding five rebounds and three assists for the Big Cats as they became only the fourth EBL side in the competition’s 29-year history to beat a side from Britain’s top league.
Inevitably their reward was a home tie against (you’ve guessed it) Plymouth, but the tie passed off with quietly with a 93-64 defeat in front of a big crowd at Brentwood. With Leopards suffering relegation at the end of the 2017 campaign that was the last time they were invited into the competition.
Giants slain by superb Leopards – January 7, 2017
Levett Essex Leopards wrote a new chapter in their history on Friday night as Manchester Giants were beaten 86-84 at the Brentwood Centre. The win was the first in the BBL Trophy for the new Big Cats and they became only the fourth EBL side in the competition’s 29-year history to beat a side from Britain’s top league.
Steve Ogunjumi’s team will now host either Scottish champions Boroughmuir Blaze or Plymouth Raiders in the quarter-finals at a venue and date to be announced. Darrell Bethune led the home side with five three pointers in his 32-point haul, adding five rebounds and three assists for the Big Cats in his best performance since signing in early November.
But it was veteran Mike Martin who stole the show as he played through the pain barrier to lead his side to victory. The former England international looked to be out of the game when he was carried off early in the second half with a knee injury, but as his side looked to have lost the momentum midway through the fourth period he dosed himself up with pain killers, ripped off the strapping and limped back onto the court to steady the ship and help secure a famous win – finishing with 20 points and seven boards. American guard AJ Roberts continued his good run of form with 16 points, nine assists and seven rebounds, while Dougie Bennett added ten points and three rebounds.
An even start to the game saw the visitors lead 17-13 with 3:21 on the clock before Martin’s jump shot launched a 13-0 run to close the quarter, with Bethune converting an and-one before Martin hit a three on the buzzer before completing a four point play at the foul line to send his side into the first break leading 26-17.
If Leopards fans thought that was as good as it got they were wrong as Bennett opened the second period with a trey and Bethune made it a 17-0 run with a foul shot to put his side up by 13. Visockis eventually ended the run but another Bennett triple made it a 15-point game with 6:21 on the clock. The rest of the half was spent with both sides at the charity stripe – Leopards being called for a bizarre double foul at one stage which saw the visitors receive four shots and the ball back – as Giants chipped away at the lead but despite a dubious three-point foul call which allowed Creppy to convert three free-throws with seconds on the clock, the Big Cats ended possibly the longest ever second period with a 49-38 lead.
The second half couldn’t have started in worse fashion for Leopards as Jerelle Okoro (who led the Giants with 17 points) hit a trey before Martin went crashing to the ground – somehow picking up an offensive foul in the process – and had to leave the game.
Treys from Roberts and Bethune kept Leopards’ lead around the ten mark, and Bethune continued to torment the visitors with ten points in the period before a 13-5 run cut the home side’s lead to 65-62 at the final break.
But that lead evaporated as Traianos hit a triple and Okoro converted a lay-up to put the visitors 68-65 ahead. Ogunjimi’s timeout with 7:45 on the clock saw Martin return after his enforced break and he hit a pair of baskets to keep his side within two points at the midway stage of the fourth quarter.
Bethune again found the basket from the Land of Plenty to put Leopards up by one and it was nip and tuck down the stretch as the hosts went into the final minute trailing 84-82.
It was Bethune who hit the go-ahead trey, converting off Roberts’ assist with 44 seconds on the clock before grabbing the rebound from Creppy’s miss 18 seconds later. With six second remaining Bethune was harshly adjudged to have fouled Callum Jones, giving him the chance the put his side back ahead. But the pressure showed on the English guard as he rimmed both shots, leaving Perry Lawson to grab the rebound.
Lawson was fouled, but he too missed both free-throws only for Martin to grab the rebound and pass to Roberts, who was predictably fouled. The American guard missed the first shot before sinking the second and the Big Cats played some good defence in the remaining 2.5 seconds to seal a famous win.