Battling Newcastle Eagles WBBL bowed out of this season’s WBBL Cup but basketball was the winner on Tyneside as an absorbing clash provided a thrilling advert for the women’s game.
Newcastle’s 96-71 defeat to Leicester didn’t tell the true story as a late burst from the Riders put the gloss on a deceiving scoreline.
And the below-strength Eagles showed glimpses of their obvious potential by matching the North Group winners play for play for 35 minutes of a terrific tie.
Ali Gorrell’s 19 points, nine rebounds and seven assists underlined the returning American’s value to a team in transition.
WBBL rookie Maddy McVicar maintained her strong start to the season with 16 points and eight boards and Jorjah Smith delivered on debut with 14 points off the bench.
But it is Leicester and Nottingham Wildcats who progress to the Final Fours leaving Newcastle to focus on making a strong start to their Championship campaign next month.
The Eagles needed to win by at least 14 points to progress to the cup semi-finals but victory by any margin was the first target.
And that task was made all the more difficult prior to tip when influential co-captain Mante Kvederaviciute pulled up with shin splints in the warm-up.
The experienced Lithuanian was named on the bench but spent the evening applying an ice pack to her left leg.
And Kvederaviciute was joined on the sidelines by another absentee in the shape of close-season signing Abby Lowe.
Perhaps it was a reaction to a disrupted pre-game but the Eagles looked flat for the first four minutes of an initially one-sided affair.
Rachael Bland finally hit the hosts’ first points with six minutes of the first quarter remaining.
But Newcastle’s gutsy co-captain was struck above the right eye as she converted under the basket and a painful blow required several minutes of treatment.
Trailing 8-2 and 16-5 — and with Bland added to the walking wounded — few gave the Eagles any hope of turning around a tough opening period.
And yet Chris Bunten’s side suddenly clicked to close the quarter with a stunning 17-0 tear.
McVicar landed back-to-back triples before four unanswered points from Gorrell put Newcastle in control.
And to cap a dazzling fightback, Aussie guard Smith sank a huge three from the corner to mark her Eagles arrival in style.
The Riders were stunned but playcaller Jesper Sundberg called for calm during the quarter break.
And the visitors wasted no time forcing their way back into a cup thriller to convert successive triples and open up a 24-22 lead.
A see-saw clash was too tough to call but successive lay-ups from Lisa Koop ensured Newcastle kept their noses in front.
Disappointingly, the German international picked up her second and third fouls two minutes before the half.
Bunten was forced to withdraw his most powerful inside threat despite Riders’ Kate Oliver proving a constant threat in the paint.
And almost inevitably it was Leicester’s veteran centre who found space under the basket before hitting a buzzer beating two on the stroke of half time.
Koop was back on court after the break but it was Sundberg’s side who stepped up the pace to lead 53-46 four minutes into the third period.
Bunten called a quick time-out in a bid to stop the rot and Gorrell’s powerful and one [correct] play reduced the deficit to four before McVicar and Smith sank huge threes.
Suddenly the Eagles were back in front and if that 14-point win seemed some way off then the women in black were showing some serious character in the face of adversity.
Newcastle led 62-60 heading into the final quarter but fatigue set in and the Riders raced into a double digit lead to win the North Group at a canter.