Arch rivals Leicester Riders might have wrapped up the regular season title without breaking into a sweat but Newcastle Eagles aren’t about to give up on second place without a fight.
The most successful franchise in BBL history heads to Surrey Scorchers on Sunday with the runners-up spot firmly in its sights.
And a stunning 40-point demolition of the Plymouth Raiders proved there’s plenty of life left yet in a club targeting playoff glory following an injury-ravaged campaign.
If London Lions slip up against either Manchester Giants tonight or Cheshire Phoenix tomorrow, then a Newcastle win against the Scorchers will guarantee a top two finish for the Eagles. Talk about triumphing in adversity.
Whether the stars align for Fabulous Flournoy and his walking wounded remains to be seen but wherever the Eagles end up come close of play Sunday this was a win that defiantly rolled back the years and dramatically raised expectations.
A man down after Jamal Williams broke his arm against Glasgow the previous weekend, Newcastle went into the first of two potentially pivotal league fixtures in desperate need of a confidence-boosting victory.
Plymouth, heading towards a bottom-three finish, proved to be the most obliging of visitors with fit-again Jaysean Paige plundering 40 points – a headline-grabbing haul that included four three pointers and a crowd-pleasing dunk down the stretch.
But it was total team basketball that underpinned a convincing win with Saah Nimley’s 21 points in 22 minutes and Jure Gunjina’s 12 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists catching the eye.
England international Drew Lasker partnered Nimley in the backcourt from the tip with Paige, apparently still lacking match fitness, watching on from the bench.
Also missing from Newcastle’s starting five was the in-form Zarko Jukic: the Danish international was named alongside Nimley in this week’s BBL Team of the Week after both players enjoyed outstanding nights against Manchester Giants the previous Friday.
But with Eagles stars dropping like flies since January, the need to carefully rotate a stretched roster has become increasingly necessary. Paige and Jukic checked in midway through the first quarter with the hosts leading 12-11 and Flournoy joined the fray moments later – at the same time as ex-Newcastle guard Eddie Matthew.
The TyneMet College graduate, like so many emerging players attempting to break into the BBL’s most successful side, endured a frustrating three-year spell on Tyneside before moving to Leeds Force.
Two years in West Yorkshire followed and Matthew made 13 league starts for the Force during the 2017/18 campaign before rocking up at the Raiders. Six seasons into his BBL career and Plymouth may yet provide the popular Geordie with the platform to progress.
But going up against his former club’s free scoring backcourt was never going to be easy. And Paige, in particular, made life impossibly difficult for a Raiders’ roster that has never taken the regular season series against the Eagles – the red hot rookie and top tip for BBL MVP bagged 18 points in his first seven minutes on court, shooting eight from 11 from the floor.
Eight of Newcastle’s nine players were on the scoreboard at the half with the hosts piling on the points in a devastating show of offensive strength. A buzzer-beating Kai Williams three-pointer was the Eagles’ 10th triple of the night as the rampant hosts took a 69-36 lead into the locker room.
By the time Paige sank his 18thbasket of the night three minutes into the fourth quarter – to move to the magical 40-point mark and fire his side into a 103-60 lead – Plymouth’s energy-sapped players already had one foot on the coach home. Newcastle, meanwhile, had one hand on second place and one eye on next week’s playoff quarter-finals.