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Leopards will go into 2020 in a relegation dogfight following their 94-85 overtime loss at Leicester Warriors, on Saturday.
The Big Cats will open the New Year with a trip to fellow strugglers Barking Abbey on Saturday January 4 before unbeaten league leaders visit the Brentwood Centre the following day in a game where Leopards are expecting their biggest crowd of the season.
Thomas Baker’s side had led by as many as 11 in the game at Leicester and were five up with four minutes of regulation time remaining but the final nine minutes of the game saw the home side take control as Leopards fell to their 11th league loss of the campaign.
The visitors were without captain Chuck Duru and point guard Toby Gaston-Davis, and struggled with foul trouble with Hafeez Abdul and Ray Akpofure both leaving the game early along with Jerrelle Okoro and Prince Lartey finishing with four each.
Okoro led the Big Cats with an 18 point, 11 rebound double-double, adding four assists, while Abdul had a season-low16 points and five boards. Lartey added 14 points, Teni Mongo came off the bench to finish with 13 points and Akpofure added 11 rebounds to his nine points.
A Caleb Taberner dunk sent the Big Cats into the first break leading 23-21 and an excellent second period saw Akpofure put his side 36-28 up with three minutes left before a pair of Simeon Douglas free-throws sent his side into locker room 40-30 ahead.
Mongo’s triple put Leopards 52-41 up with 4:30 left in the third period but Warriors replied with an 8-0 tear before James Cummings ended the run at the foul line before the home side ended the quarter strongly to only trail 53-51 going into what everyone thought would be the final break.
A high-scoring start to the fourth period saw Lartey put Leopards 67-65 up with five minutes gone and an Akpofure lay-up a minute later made it a five point game.
James Cummings’ lay-up with 81 seconds on the clock kept Leopards ahead by four but Roderick Howell halved the lead and as the visitors failed to get a call down the stretch, American guard TJ Henderson tied the score at the foul line and with Euan James’ attempted buzzer-beater rimming out, the game went into an extra period.
Howell opened the overtime period scoring with a pair of free-throws as Warriors started with a 6-0 run and although Taberner ended the tear, Martyn Gayle sunk a trey to effectively end the game as a contest.
Coach Baker was understandably frustrated after the game: “Being in a position to win so close to the final whistle, this loss is one of the toughest to take” he admitted.
“The guys committed to some subtle changes we had made to our game plan and for the most part it was paying off.
“This half of the season has not been what we wanted in terms of results but I believe that after the Christmas break we can come back and change our fortunes.”