Dave Ryan reports…
A strong second half could not prevent Leopards starting life at the University of Essex with an 84-77 loss against Barking Abbey Crusaders on Saturday.
The Big Cats erased a 20-point deficit with a strong end to the third period and a good start to the fourth, but they ultimately came up short down the stretch.
In front of a big crowd, Captain Sam Newman led the home side with 18 points, five rebounds and four assists, while Chuck Duru added 15 points on his competitive debut.
Luke Mascall-Wright continued his good early-season form with 12 points, nine rebounds and six assists, with Lee Hodges adding 11 rebounds to his 12 points.
The Big Cats won the rebound battle 46-38 but saw their up-tempo game slowed down and they were outshot from all distances by the visitors who had a sparkling performance from Ade Adebayo as the youngster hit 35 points in as many minutes including four of his five three-point attempts.
Duru became the first Leopard to score at their new venue when he split a pair of free-throws, but the Big Cats struggled to get points on the board in the opening minutes and despite treys from Newman, Andre Lavinier and Duru, they went into the first break trailing 19-16.
The second period proved to be the killer for the home side as Barking went on an 8-0 run, outscoring them by ten points, and a pair of Newman free-throws could only reduce the arrears to 45-31 going into the locker room at half-time.
A trey from Feeney saw Barking’s lead balloon to 20 at the midway stage of the third period before Thomas Baker’s team finally clicked into gear as back-to-back treys from Tom Child and a 15-5 run to end the period cut the deficit to 61-51 at the final break.
Newman scored from the Land of Plenty to open the fourth period and four Mascall-Wright points in an 8-0 run from the hosts saw them cut the visitors’ lead to 63-62 lead with seven minutes of the game remaining.
Adebayo and Duru exchanged treys but the young English guard did all of the damage down the stretch as he scored 21 straight points for Abbey to seal their win.
The Big Cats return to action at the University of Essex on Saturday when they host Nottingham Hoods at 6.00pm with the women’s team, Essex Rebels, facing Nottingham Wildcats at 3.30pm.
Hoods proved to be a thorn in Leopards’ side last season as they won both league fixtures on their way to the Division Two title, and also knocked the Big Cats out of the National Trophy.
The midlands side won their opening two Trophy games this season, beating Leicester Warriors and Derby Trailblazers, but went down heavily against Loughborough Riders in their final group game in the competition and were beaten 103-91 on their Division One debut in Bradford.
Leopards also face a tough game on Sunday when they travel to old rivals Westminster Warriors in the National Cup third round.
Thomas Baker’s team won two tight league games against the London side last season to seal fourth place in Division Two, but were knocked out of the play-offs by a Warriors team that contains former Leopards Tosin Oyelese and Justin Hitchman.
Westminster have won both of the their Patrons Cup games to qualify for the semi-final of the competition they won last year, and while Leopards were winning in Derby to reach the last 32 of the Cup, they defeated West Bromwich side WLV Albion in the same round.