Dave Ryan reports…
A mixed weekend for Levett Essex Leopards saw their promotion hopes take a major blow.
A strong finish saw Thomas Baker’s side make it eight wins from nine as Team Birmingham Elite were beaten 73-63 on Saturday.
But, in contrast, the following day’s key game against Thames Valley Cavaliers saw the visitors take control in the final four minutes as they blew open a tight game with a 20-6 run to win 100-83.
Saturday’s visitors produced a fighting – though at times over-physical – performance that belied their lowly league position, but 20 points and seven rebounds from Korey Callum helped Thomas Baker’s side continue their promotion push.
Captain Dougie Bennett finished with 16 points and four assists despite playing only 27 minutes after a clattering challenge late in the first half that not only went unpunished, but saw coach Thomas Baker receive a technical foul for complaining.
Jamie Hayes and Jerrell Layne added eight points apiece, while Antonio Deogratias marked his debut with 11 rebounds, six points and two assists for a Leopards’ team who were without Will Ashby, Caleb Tabernar and Jamie Rodwell.
The teams were tied at 19 going into the first break but the Midlands side opened the second period with a 10-0 run.
A pair of Bennett three pointers pulled Leopards back into the game, and a pair of Jamie Hayes free-throws sent the hosts into the locker room with a 40-38 half-time lead.
A low scoring third period saw three-point plays from Callum, Bennett and Layne keep Leopards ahead, and Shaq Lewis converted two foul shots to send his side into the final break with a 55-50 lead.
Seven points from Callum saw Leopards’ lead stretched to ten points early in the fourth period, and although the visitors narrowed the gap to two points with three minutes remaining, Deogratias launched an 8-0 run to close out the win.
A big crowd at Brentwood the following day saw Leopards lead 27 of the 40 minutes but eventually come up short against a Cavaliers side packed with players who have played professionally at a higher level.
Bennett scored seven of his team-high 16 points in the first four minutes as Leopards took a 9-4 lead, and with Deogratias and Layne hitting three pointers, the Big Cats took a 31-25 lead into the first break.
Seven points from Ashby kept the hosts ahead early in the second half, and although the West London side briefly took the lead, Bennett converted an and-one to give Leopards a 48-47 half-time lead.
The third period proved to be a war of attrition with the Big Cats only trailing briefly but without ever stretching their lead above four points, but a pair of Tabernar baskets split by a Layne trey sent them into the final break leading 66-65.
Callum opened the fourth period scoring for the Big Cats, but Andre Baptise gave the visitors the lead with five minutes remaining, and although Deogratias made it a one point game with four minutes left, Cavaliers scored 13 of the next 15 points to wrap up the win.
Deogratias finished with an 11 point, ten rebound double-double for the Big Cats, with Layne also adding 11 points and both Ashby and Callum scoring 10.
The Big Cats now have a weekend off before travelling to Ipswich on February 24.