Big weekend ahead for Leopards

Leopards go into one of the biggest weekends in club history on the back of an excellent 97-91 overtime win at Reading Rockets.

The Big Cats travel to basement side Liverpool on Saturday before returning to Oaklands College on Sunday to face Nottingham Hoods, tip-off 3.30pm.

The game in Liverpool will see Thomas Baker’s side look to record their first double of the season having beaten the Merseyside team 97-77 at Oaklands back in November.

The Scousers are bottom of the table with a 2-20 record having had a victory deducted following their failure to fulfil their fixture at Solent in November.

The two sides did manage to play on Merseyside last weekend, with Solent recording the biggest Division One victory of the season, and living memory,  with a 138-72 victory.

A win for Leopards would effectively relegate Liverpool and send the Big Cats into Sunday’s home game against Nottingham knowing they were only two wins away from safety.

Hoods looked to have recruited a top six side, but lost their first five league games and patchy form since has seen them miss out on the play-offs but they have picked up enough wins to ensure another season of top flight football and head into the weekend in tenth spot with a 7-14 record. The meeting between the teams in December saw Hoods edge a close game 85-80.

Sunday’s win at Rockets was Leopards’ first away league victory of the season, giving them a real chance of avoiding the drop and coach Thomas Baker was a happy man after the game: “We always had this win in us” he said.

“The desire and competitiveness we showed today was flawless at times. Right from the pre-game to the end. We shot the ball well and we gave everything we could to the defensive end. I felt we were connected from coaches to players and it showed in how we finished the game. I hope we can continue that in what will be a massive weekend for us.”

Elvisi Dusha was the star man for the Big Cats as the Albanian international played through a back injury to lead the Big Cats with 34 points, including six of his nine three-point attempts, six assists and five rebounds. Fellow international, England’s Orlan Jackman added a 20-point, 12 rebound double-double while Lithuanian Os Gaizuaskas had 11 points and six boards.

It was a tight game throughout, with 19 lead changes and 12 ties, with Leopards’ 64-56 lead in the third period the biggest of the game and their 11-0 tear to close out overtime the biggest run of the game.

Leopards led for almost all of the first period, Chuck Duru’s lay-up making it 14-12 at the five minute mark and Jackman’s shot sent them into the first break 21-20 ahead.

There was little between the teams in the second period but Ben Dixon’s lay-up looked to have given Rockets a half-time lead only for a perfectly run play out of a timeout to end with Dush beating the clock to drain a three and put the Big Cats 44-42 ahead going into the locker room.

A bizarre set of refereeing decisions at the start of the second half saw Dusha called for an intentional foul after an initial jump ball call and Jackman collect his fourth  foul after driving to the basket leaving him one foul away from disqualification with 19 minutes remaining.

But Leopards weathered the storm, with Toby Gastaldi-Davis draining a triple to give them a five point lead with four minutes gone and Dusha’s triple meant they could survive a late 5-0 Rockets run to go into the fourth quarter with a 64-62 lead.

With a short rotation – only six players played double digit minutes despite the extra period – Leopards noticeably tired in the fourth period and David Chive’s trey put Rockets 78-71 ahead.

A pair of Jackman baskets kept his side in the game before his trey cut the deficit to one with 3:21 on the clock but Boho’s shot with 1:25 left gave the home side a three point lead.

Inevitably it was Dusha who sunk the triple to tie the game with 71 seconds left and although both sides could have won the game in the final five seconds, the game went into an extra five minutes with the teams tied on 86.

Richards hit the first five points of the extra period but triples from Gastaldi-Davis and Gaizuaskas put Leopards back in front before Jackman and Gaizuaskas wrapped up a massive win for the Big Cats at the foul line.

Mick Ferris

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