Champions-elect London survived an almighty scare at the Vertu Motors Arena after Newcastle Eagles came within a whisker of ending the Lions’ 17-game BBL Championship winning streak.
Marc Steutel’s men led until deep into another dramatic night on Tyneside but the league leaders proved their class to close out a barely deserved three-point victory.
And the Eagles head to Manchester Giants tomorrow with the franchise’s playoff hopes hanging by a thread.
Javion Hamlet’s game-high 30 points put the hosts in pole position against London before the league’s leading scorer and Darius Defoe both fouled out within the final six minutes.
That allowed the Lions a way back in and Ryan Schmidt’s side showed just why they’ve dominated the domestic scene this season — and taken the EuroCup by storm — to seal a hard-fought 88-85 win.
“I want to start off by paying credit to London,” said Steutel. “They stayed the course. That’s a high-quality basketball team with a lot of talent and they’re very well-organised.
“Having said that, I’m exceptionally proud of the fight in my group. And I’m exceptionally disappointed with the inconsistencies in the game.
“The week before we lost David Cohn to an unsportsmanlike foul — a tap foul in the post. There was no consistency with what then happened in the Lions game.
“All season long a foul at the end of the game has been an unsportsmanlike foul against us. It’s a regular foul here.
“We get called for a flop on a three and then Justin Gordon gets called for a foul on a three. There was no difference between those plays!
“Again, I need to reiterate that London deserve credit. They stayed the course and made shots when they needed to.
“I’m proud of my group but bitterly disappointed with factors outside of that group.”
During a dynamic first quarter where defence was at a premium, Newcastle more than matched the star-studded Lions at the offensive end.
MVP Hamlet raced to nine personal after nailing a perfect three from three from the bonus stripe and London had little answer to the former Mean Green man’s trademark left-hand floater.
But the biggest cheer of a pulsating period was reserved for Defoe as the popular veteran clocked up a 570th league appearance to move second ahead of Yorick Williams in the overall standings.
The BBL’s most decorated player entered the fray seven minutes into the game but it was only after the quarter break that the fired-up forward suddenly burst into life.
Defoe, watched by former team-mates Charles Smith and Andrew Bridge, rolled back the years to bag the first eight Eagles points of the second period.
And with Hamlet unstoppable in transition, Steutel’s warriors were well worth a fabulous 50-47 lead at the half.
The BBL’s leading marksman paced all scorers with 20 points in 16 minutes, converting seven of nine two-pointers.
And thanks to Defoe and a rejuvenated Jermel Kennedy contributing 16 points off the bench, the red-hot hosts headed into the second half eyeing the biggest upset of the season so far.
Newcastle played their best basketball of the night — and possibly the season — for nine magical minutes of a dominant third quarter but the Lions clawed their way back into contention with an 8-0 tear to close the period.
London’s long winning streak was on the line but when Hamlet and Defoe fouled out within 20 seconds of each other, the title favourites sensed blood.
Back-to-back Sam Dekker triples fired the visitors back in front 90 seconds from time as the momentum suddenly swung towards the nerveless Lions.
The Eagles still fought hard for what would have been a famous win and somehow engineered the final shot of the game.
But David Cohn’s ambitious three-pointer from way downtown bounced out to deny the exhausted hosts the chance to take an outstanding clash into overtime.