Dave Ryan reports…
As Levett Essex Leopards prepare for the visit of Nottingham Hoods to the Brentwood Centre on Sunday, coach Thomas Baker is ready for the new season.
Sunday’s game tips off at 4pm, with junior coaching starting at 2pm – further details on www.leopardsbasketball.co.uk.
“There’s a great feeling amongst the guys and everyone is invested in getting better one step at a time” said Baker after Saturday’s 90-80 victory against Division One title favourites Reading Rockets in Leopards’ final pre-season game.
“After such a great result against Reading Rockets we have completed our pre-season friendlies. We have shown at times that this year we will be the team to beat but we have also shown at times that we are still growing and developing together. No one is going to hand us victories that’s been proven so we must be willing to out-work teams.
“The performance against Rockets pleased me a lot. The result itself was good but how the result came was the key. The game had everything and the growth we have shown in a week is just a snippet of how much we can still grow collectively. We showed that we can fight through adversity and we also showed that we can hurt teams in multiple ways.
“Defensively we were exceptional for the most part against Reading, however we did come unstuck against Team USA the week before. We just need to stay focused throughout play-phases to get the reward we deserve for playing hard.
“We are ready to go and we are really excited for this journey together this season and we know what is expected of us moving forward. Now it’s time to get down to business. We have spoken a lot as a team about how we want this season to go now it’s time for us to deliver!”
Sunday’s game sees Leopards’ debut in the Patrons Cup as the Big Cats begin life in the second tier of the NBL, and the format of the competition means that there is no room for error as the Big Cats look to reach the semi-final of the competition.
With a side containing former England international David Watts, Hoods finished sixth in the 12-team Division Two last season, winning ten of their 22 games, but went out of the play-offs at the first stage. They won their Patrons Cup group but lost in the semi-final against eventual winners Newcastle University.
In Saturday’s surprise win against Rockets, AJ Roberts led the way with 24 points, while Ruben Saiz Colon added 15 and Shaq Lewis 14. Brentwood-based guards Will Ashby (12) and Dougie Bennett (11) also finished in double figures as the Big Cats led from tip to buzzer.
A 24-17 first period set Leopards up for the victory and they shaded the second quarter by a point to lead 45-37 at half-time despite Rockets scoring the final four points following a technical foul on the bench.
The lead peaked at 22 in the third quarter as Leopards outscored the visitors 27-14 to lead 72-51 going into the final break. The hosts noticeably took their foot off the gas in the fourth period as Rockets opened with a 14-2 run but seven straight Roberts points capped by a trey saw them regain the initiative and hold on for a comfortable win.