Dave Ryan reports…
It’s win or bust for Levett Essex Leopards when they travel to Middlesex LTBC on Sunday.
A disastrous weekend means the Big Cats need to win against the Lithuanian side if they are to get home court advantage in the play-offs.
After going through a stage where they struggled to field a team, Middlesex are now up to seventh – in the penultimate play-off spot – with seven wins from 18 games.
One of their 11 league losses came at the Brentwood Centre in December as Leopards finished strongly to win 94-89.
Thomas Baker’s team will want to quickly put last weekend behind them as they fell to two losses.
While the 102-85 loss at Nottingham Hoods – which saw the home side confirmed as NBL Division Two champions – saw some good passages of play from the Big Cats as they made the hosts work hard for the win, the following day’s 89-52 defeat against Liverpool saw easily their worst performance of the season.
The Big Cats started well at Nottingham, with a lay-up from youngster Jose Morais giving them a 9-6 lead but the hosts finished the period strongly to lead 33-22 after a high-scoring first period.
Will Ashby hit a trey to open the second period and Leopards dominated the first five minutes as a pair of Dougie Bennett three point plays followed by a Shaq Lewis trey gave them a 42-38 lead.
That 20-5 run proved to be as good as it got in the first half for the visitors and Hoods answered with a 21-4 run to close out the half with a 59-46 lead.
Despite treys from Bennett and Ashby, Leopards trailed by as many as 22 in the third period, but scores from Lewis and Jamie Hayes in a frantic final three seconds saw the deficit cut to 83-69 at the final break.
The Big Cats still had one more run left in them, and scores from Kevin Moyo and Bennett made it a ten point game at the start of the fourth period before Bennett hit three straight free-throws to reduce the home side’s lead to seven.
The key moment came with 7:01 left on the clock when Bennett – who led his side with 29 points and five assists in just 21 minutes – was called for a harsh intentional foul on Delaney Powell, and having already picked up a technical foul, the Leopards’ captain was ejected.
Scores from Moyo and Lewis kept the home side’s lead down to eight but the home side used their three point shooting to close out the win in the final five minutes and seal the title.
Moyo came off the bench to finish with 14 points and six assists, while Lewis chalked up 12 points and four rebounds in 13 minutes of action.
With Jerrell Layne missing with a back injury and both Ashby and Bennett also struggling, Leopards never came close to repeating the intensity of Saturday’s game as Liverpool took a key win at Brentwood.
The visitors got behind the Big Cats defence three times in the opening minutes as they rushed into an 8-0 lead, and although five straight Ashby points pulled Leopards back into the game it set the tone for the rest of the afternoon.
Leopards trailed by 26-19 at the first break before an abject second period saw them go into the locker room 55-30 down.
The teams matched each other in the first five minutes of the third period but Leopards were outscored 8-6 in the rest of the quarter before the lead peaked at 85-47 in the final minutes of the game.
Lewis was the only Leopard in double figures with ten points and 12 rebounds, while youngster Jordan George and Korey Callum added nine points apiece.