Any lingering play-off hopes Levett Essex Leopards held were ended by a 74-61 defeat by Derby Trailblazers at Harlow Leisurezone on Saturday, and the Big Cats now find themselves in a full-blown relegation battle.
For the second successive Saturday Steve Ogunjimi’s side produced an abject first half performance – scoring just 22 points on 19 percent shooting – and although they pulled within five points in the second half, once again they found the hole they had dug themselves too deep to get out of.
For all their injury problems, and without guard Dougie Bennett due to work commitments, the home side were architects of their own downfall against a Derby side who also struggled to find the basket in the first and third periods.
Having suffered a shoulder injury during Friday’s practice session, Darrell Bethune came off the bench to finish with 28 points and three rebounds. But Justin Hitchman was the only other Big Cat in double figures with ten points , adding six rebounds.
Derby won the tip and opened up a 6-0 lead in the first four minutes before Hitchman finally put the hosts on the scoreboard with 5:15 on the clock.
A Jamie Hayes free-throw made it a one point game but that proved to be as close as Leopards came as M Ward-Hibbert converted a three-point play, and the lead grew to 16-7 before Shaq Lewis cut the deficit to 16-9 at the first break.
That proved to be only a brief respite for the home side as Derby opened the second period with a 10-0 run to lead 26-9 before Hayes drained from downtown to end the drought, and although Bethune scored from the Land of Plenty to help Leopards match the visitors during the rest of the half, they went into the locker room trailing 40-22.
That deficit grew to 22 after two second half minutes before Bethune finally sparked the Big Cats into life with ten points – including a pair of triples – in a 13-2 run, and six straight Hitchman points followed by a Bethune score saw the gap closed to 52-45 at the final break with Leopards having outscored the visitors 23-12 in the period.
B Amabilino-Perez hit a trey to make it a ten point game with the opening score of the fourth quarter but scores from AJ Roberts, Tosin Oyelese and Perry Lawson kept Leopards in touch and a four point play from Bethune made it 60-55 with four minutes remaining.
A Roberts ley-up kept the deficit at six heading into the final three minutes but back-to-back turnovers from the hosts followed by a Maxwell Morrison dunk effectively ended the game as a contest.
With no game this coming weekend Leopards will look for a good weekend in practice before Westminster Warriors are the visitors to Harlow on February 25 for a must-win game.