2015 – Leopards win Division One

Leopards became National Basketball League champions for the second time in four years on Sunday as they defeated Team Northumbria 84-72. 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..

Leopards struggled with foul trouble all game, but took charge in the final five minutes to outscore the north east side 19-8.

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.

Essex Leopards v Team Northumbria 29 Mar 2015; Byron Richards;

Jack Preston made it a two point game, only for Margai to convert an and-one before Ashby and Christian Hatch exchanged baskets to send Leopards into the final break 60-56 ahead.

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.

Roger reflects on title win

Leopards’ assistant coach Roger Malpass admitted that winning the league with the Big Cats is the highlight of his career: “I am very proud of what we have achieved this year, in the face of some considerable challenges.” said the former MK Lions assistant,

“From deciding during the summer if there was going to be a team to coach, to overcoming budgetary constraints to win the league is a fantastic accomplishment. I think that winning Sunday’s game to clinch the Division One title has to be the biggest achievement of my basketball career to date. Winning with such a great bunch of players who work hard for each other is an absolute joy.

Malpass paid tribute to the people who helped the Big Cats collect their second title in four years: “Credit goes to Robert Youngblood for his commitment to the team and his unwavering faith in all of their abilities, and also to the volunteers who work selflessly and give their time and money willingly to keep the club going., Dave (and Tracy) Ryan, Tony (and Lin) Shorey, Greg (and Lynn) Roberts, Tony (and Hayley) Shaw, and Gareth Roberts deserve special mentions for their dedication, and a special mention to my wife Franci, who travels the country with me allowing me to indulge my passion – she also washes all the sweaty kit too, week in, week out.

“I should also mention Martin, Alan and Kev who arrive early to set up the court and stay behind to clear it too. Final shout out to statto spotter Keith who helps compile the so important match stats in addition to dragging the sound system in every week

“Finally a huge thank you to all of our supporters, and sponsors, both corporate sponsors and player sponsors – the funding you provide is the lifeblood of our club – without you this would not have been possible. The crowd inside Brentwood on Sunday was immense and inspiring. The noise was as loud as I’ve heard at one of our games – it really does help the players to hear the chants of “Leopards” or “Defence” ringing in our ears, so thank you once again.

“Now for the next step – to win the play-offs!! Make sure you’re there on the 12th April – you wouldn’t want to miss it!!!”

Defence the key for Youngblood

Leopards’ coach Robert Youngblood had praise for his team after they won the EBL Division One title with a game to spare: “I’ve pushed them to the limit this season, and they’ve given me far more than I expected” he said.

“Each and every player gave everything for me. If you can get that every night you’ll have a successful team. “I’m ecstatic to win the league, it’s a big accomplishment and with the team we had this year a lot people didn’t expect us to do very well”

“But I always believed in them, and sometimes it more important to have players who like each other and want to play for each other, than pure talent alone. Last season’s team [who finished runners-up] was more talented, but this team played for each other.

“I won the BBL twice with the old Leopards playing run and gun basketball, and it was fun, but I needed to put together a defensive team if we were going to be successful. [Former Leopards’ league winning coach] Billy Mims always said that offence wins titles, but we’re the best defensive team in the league, so I think we’ve proved that hard-nosed defence can also make you champions. The likes of Detroit, Knicks and Bulls have proved over the years in the NBA that defence really can win titles.

“I knew that signing Albert [Margai] with give us a bulldog in defence and Dave [Ajumobi] could lock things up at the post, and those two led from the front.. We took five players from Newham, brought in a couple of additions together with Ronnie [Baker] and Courtney [Van Beest]  and had a system that worked for us. Those five players came eighth with Newham last year – and it should’ve been ninth – but we showed that working hard and playing tough defence works.”

Leopards won their first five league games by a combined margin for just 12 points, and Youngblood believes that tough start gave the edge later in the season: “The key for us was that where battle-tested early. Those four games could all have been losses, but we learned how to play together and when games were close later in the season we pulled together.”

Youngblood isn’t finished yet, and is still looking for a second piece of silverware this season: “We’re not done yet, there’s four more games and we need to win the last three so we can walk out with the play-off trophy. I’m not saying that the first two trophies aren’t important, but the last two are the ones that people remember.”

Pictures: Paul Phillips


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