Ultimately a basketball game is played over four quarters and forty minutes and not decided until the final buzzer. But somewhere within those times and periods there are decisive moments. For The Eagles that came early in this game.
Cheshire this season have been almost everyone’s surprise package. Few would have tipped them to be in the top four of the League and certainly you’d have to look hard and long to find someone that would have tipped them to be Trophy Champions.
But they are and under the astute leadership of Head Coach Ben Thomas and with outstanding individuals like Laquincy Rideau and Arron Rai gelling the fine supporting cast together they have become a team to be feared.
Not that the Eagles are not a side that many disrespect. They have the firepower and explosive offensive power to test any side on their day. With the three-guard combination of Larry Austin Jr, Jordan Johnson and Rickey McGill hard to stop on their day.
Last night in Cheshire though it was the home side’s stars that edged the day over Newcastle’s as the Phoenix strengthened their position in the top four and handed Eagles Head Coach Marc Steutel a second loss of the weekend to analyse.
There’s no doubting that Steutel with his coaching credibility and knowledge will break the games down with his players and see where they need to improve and tighten up on after tough defeats against London on Friday and now Cheshire.
But, back to decisive parts of the game that has influence. In this one it came very, very early on. After Darius Defoe levelled the game with the Eagles first basket at 2 – 2 Phoenix went on a 11 – 0 run that blew the contest open.
With 4 minutes and 15 seconds to go in the first period Newcastle had only scored 6 points whilst Cheshire had poured in 23 with Rai and Rideau in particular looking ominously dominant.
But the introduction of Josh Ward-Hibbett from the bench seemed to give Newcastle a spark and he helped Larry Austin Jr against his former team haul Eagles back into the game with a 9 – 2 run that gave the score line a much better look for Steutel’s side.
Although 29 – 17 at the end of the first meant that Newcastle were already in catch-up mode for the rest of the game. The second period was The Eagles best. They kept chipping away at the Phoenix lead throughout.
Ten points personal from Ward-Hibbett and McGill finally getting going saw them close the gap. But with Rai and Rideau finding good support from Cam Christon the home side kept the Eagles at bay and they trailed 44 to 39 as the half-time buzzer sounded.
It was Cheshire again in the early part of the third quarter that looked the more likely as they retained just enough of a lead to see them control the game. Eagles kept making runs at the Phoenix but every time they did Cheshire answered.
McGill and Austin Jr. managed to get Newcastle within 3-points during the third quarter but EJ Stephens with a triple followed by a deuce moved the gap back to 8-points again as Cheshire resisted every thing Newcastle threw at them to take a 72 – 65 lead into the final ten minutes.
With increasing foul trouble limiting Steutel’s rotations and options they couldn’t strike early in the fourth period and in fact didn’t register a basket from open play until 3 minutes and 16 seconds into the final quarter when Johnson hit a triple.
By then it was 79 – 66 and the game was slipping away from The Eagles. Even more so when they responded to Johnson’s triple with back-to-back triples of their own pushing the lead to 85 – 69.
The closest Newcastle got after that was within nine points with Austin Jr. still leading the efforts but Phoenix closed down Ward-Hibbert who had hit five of his first seven 3-point attempts. It enabled them to control the latter stages and pick up a deserved win.
For The Eagles Larry Austin Jr. had 22 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists, Josh Ward-Hibbert had 19 points and 7 rebounds and Rickey McGill 16 points and 7 rebounds. But there was not enough support particularly from the front court to make a difference.
The Eagles are next in action this coming Friday at the Vertu Motors Arena in the “Battle for the North” against Caledonia Gladiators. Another crucial game in the race for a top four placing in the Play-offs.
Tickets are available from the box office and selling fast!