Earlier this week Newcastle Eagles’ owner Paul Blake suggested it was time to shake up the BBL playoffs and reintroduce a three-game series at the quarter-final stage. In the wake of this demoralising 11-point defeat on Tyneside, one match might seem more than enough for a well-beaten Bristol Flyers.
It is difficult to imagine the most dominant franchise of the modern era allowing their opponents a way back into this two-legged tie. Newcastle boast a 17-0 record against Bristol in all competitions and it seems unlikely the Flyers will snap that losing streak tomorrow [Sunday] – let alone break their duck against the Eagles on the back of a 12-point win.
Andreas Kapoulas’s side might have enjoyed their best ever regular season finish after securing sixth spot last weekend. But there is still a significant gulf in class between third-placed Newcastle and their quarter-final opponents and from tip to buzzer the visitors struggled to suppress an Eagles’ side boasting a wealth of offensive weapons.
Where containing Saah Nimley was concerned Bristol’s gameplan appeared straight out of the General Patton guide to getting the job done: do your duty as you see it and damn the consequences.
Newcastle’s nimble number one was crudely fouled twice in the space of a minute midway through the opening quarter and each hefty collision caused the Charleston Southern graduate to crash to the floor.
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But Nimley is a tough nut to crack. An ever-present throughout a feisty first period, the 5ft8in pocket rocket took five points, four assists and a handful of bruises into the break. He would be back to finish the game with a mighty 19 points and 12 assists.
Just 10 minutes in and the Eagles had established an eight-point lead – leaving the Flyers in no doubt that it would require a Herculean effort to snap that unenviable losing streak.
But only five points had separated the two teams after 80 minutes of playoff basketball 12 months earlier and the visitors soared back into contention during the second quarter. With the halftime buzzer just 60 seconds away the visitors levelled the score at 41-41 on the back of a Brandon Boggs two. Game on.
The Eagles had beaten Bristol by 23 points in March but fast forward two months and the latter’s rapid recent progress was clear for all to see. Adam Weary and Daniel Edozie might sound like they belong in sleeping bags back on the team bus but the lively duo combined for 18 first half points against a wildly inconsistent Newcastle defence.
And on a night when nothing less than 100% focus was required, player-coach Flournoy must have been concerned that too many Eagles were taking their eye off the ball.
The hosts’ best route to victory appeared to be through a fit again Darius Defoe with the experienced forward in dominant form at the offensive end. A three-point play midway through the third period took the 33-year-old to 21 points and opened up a seven-point Newcastle lead.
By now the Flyers were struggling to stay in touch and the Eagles took a 12-point advantage into the final quarter. Sensing the opportunity to finish the semi-final before the second leg, Defoe underlined the hosts’ dominance with the first basket of the period and Newcastle retained control down the stretch.
Flournoy will feel that further lax defending at the death cost his side a more comfortable lead heading into tomorrow’s decider. But the Eagles boast more than enough quality and experience to seal their place in the semi-finals.