Prior to Bristol’s latest visit to the Eagles Community Arena, Newcastle Eagles’ player-coach Fab Flournoy admitted his team was ‘still learning and growing’. A typically honest appraisal was encouraging and alarming in equal measure.
Encouraging because Flournoy clearly sees untapped potential in a roster that has often appeared wracked with self-doubt. And even after all these years he remains determined to unlock that potential.
Alarming because, by now, more than two thirds of the way into a pivotal season, a mix of veteran professionals and emerging youngsters should surely have grasped their roles and grown into a winning unit.
Still learning and growing in late March is far from ideal. But a team standing still and stagnating would be of far greater concern. And there are signs of evolution, however sporadic.
So what had Newcastle learnt from their previous clash with Bristol? And could they grow again?
Three weeks earlier the hosts had been out-rebounded 16-10 after the first quarter but 21 days down the line and the boards were 16-8 in the Eagles’ favour following a hugely impressive opening period.
Last time out Newcastle had shot a paltry 37 per cent from the field against the Flyers inside the first 10 minutes – fast forward three weeks and that percentage was up to 52. Lessons learnt? Almost. Flournoy had also impressed upon his players the need to take better care of the ball and five horrible first quarter turnovers will have been a source of serious frustration for the Eagles’ coaching staff.
But a 26-11 lead, built on the transitional style of play which has become a feature of Newcastle’s game since Christmas, must have encouraged all concerned. Victor Moses led all scorers heading into the second quarter after passing 1,000 career BBL points and Bristol had no answer to a series of flowing fast breaks and some nerveless decision making.
With six minutes remaining in the first half the Eagles led by 18 – an Eddie Matthew triple extending the hosts’ impressive advantage. But Bristol had proved their staying power on the club’s previous trip north and the Flyers finally found another gear. An 8-0 tear reduced the deficit to nine with 90 seconds to play in the second period and Newcastle assistant Ian Macleod was forced to call a time-out in a bid to stem the rising red tide.
But remember – this is a team that is ‘still learning and growing’. Learners will make mistakes and sustained growth is never a given.
Those lessons will have been reinforced in the locker room during the mid-game break and the Eagles emerged with the same zeal and ardour that had punctuated that lighting start to the first period. Doubling their lead inside the first five minutes of a frantic third quarter, the hosts again turned to Moses in the paint and the powerful forward delivered. Newcastle survived a mid-period wobble to take a 16-point advantage into the final period.
Tomorrow’s trip to Cheshire must have been at the forefront of the minds of coaches Flournoy, Macleod and Dave Forrester with 10 minutes on the clock. And of the Eagles’ five starters only Moses and Rahmon Fletcher remained on court at the outset of the fourth quarter.
Veteran duo Flournoy and Darius Defoe were both entrusted with key roles as play resumed and within two minutes of the restart the latter joined Moses in celebrating a memorable career landmark – hauling down the 3,000threbound of his decorated BBL career.
It seems even the popular Londoner is still learning and growing: his 15 points, 10 boards and 5 assists inside 27 minutes symptomatic of Defoe’s increasing efficiency and key to his side’s ultimately comfortable 82-64 win.