Leopards head into next Saturday’s game against Loughborough Riders at Oaklands College (5.45pm) knowing they’re in a relegation dog-fight after a pair of contrasting defeats over the weekend.
The Big Cats staged a late comeback at Barking Abbey on Saturday before slipping to a 83-75 defeat.
Then an excellent first half performance against champions-elect Solent Kestrels wasn’t enough to prevent a 113-79 loss in front of a big crowd at the Brentwood Centre.
Saturday’s loss at Barking leaves the Big Cats joint bottom of the table with Liverpool, and the only consolation for coach Thomas Baker will be that a fourth period comeback reduced the deficit from 28 and gives them a chance of winning the head-to-head decider when the teams meet at Oaklands in mid-March.
Jerrelle Okoro led Baker’s team, hitting 11 of his 19 points from the foul line, adding four rebounds. Ray Akpofore finished with a massive 12 point, 15 rebound double-double while Oaklands youngster Toby Gastsldi-Davies hit four treys on his way to 11 points and Prince Lartey had a ten point, ten assist double-double.
The Big Cats only led briefly in the game and conceded 28 point off turnovers, and went into the first break trailing 24-15 before reducing the deficit to one with a 20-15 second period. But a disastrous third quarter saw the visitors outscored 28-11 to leave them trailing 68-46 at the final break.
A Lartey three-point play finally got the Big Cats moving and Gastaldi-Davies’ trey and a lay-up in a 13-0 run saw the visitors make it a nine point game with 2:44 on the clock.
Another Gastaldi-Davies three pointer reduced the arrears to eight, and Lartey made it a five point game with 98 seconds on the clock. But Norton’s driving lay-up broke the visitors’ run and although the same player only hit one-from-four free-throws as Leopards were forced to foul to stop the clock, Abbey held on for what could prove to be a key victory.
The following day saw Leopards pick up where they had left off with a great first half performance against an unbeaten Solent side who defeated British League champions London Lions the previous day.
The Big Cats had lost 122-61 at Solent on the opening day of the season but with Lartey having his best performance of the season – finishing with 25 points, eight assists and six rebounds – they gave Kestrels one of their toughest tests of the season.
Captain Chuck Duru finished with 14 points and five rebounds while Okoro battled with foul trouble all game – appearing to be called for a foul committed by a different player at one stage – to add 11 points in 16 minutes. Another Oaklands youngster, Ahmed Ketiri, had his best game in a Leopards’ vest to add five rebounds to his ten points.
Lartey sunk a trey to open the scoring, but nine Luke Busumbi points in a 14-4 run helped Solent lead 31-23 at the first break.
But the second quarter saw Leopards play some of their best basketball of the season as treys from Lartey, Okoro, Ketiri and Duru saw cut Kestrels’ lead to one on several occasions, and a lay-up from Lartey cut the deficit to 54-51 going into the locker room.
It was as still a one-point game following Ketiri’s put-back three minutes into the second half, but with Okoro leaving the game following an offensive foul, Kestrels went on a 24-6 run to close out the quarter and effectively wrap up the win.
Loughborough will arrive at Oaklands in joint sixth place with an 8-5 record and have reached the National Cup semi-final where they will look to repeat last year’s victory against Solent.
When the sides met in the midlands at the start of the season a strong second half saw Riders run out 94-66 winners. The teams split their games last season with Leopards hitting an incredible 20 of their 32 three point shots in a 108-76 home victory.