|Newcastle Eagles WBBL||17||20||20||13||70||Win|
Newcastle Eagles survived an almighty scare on the road after edging a nip and tuck WBBL clash against struggling Essex Rebels.
Chris Bunten’s side surrendered a 12-point lead and almost blew their big chance to join Leicester Riders at the top of the Championship table.
But Lisa Koop and Mante Kvederaviciute kept their cool from the free throw line in the final 30 seconds to secure a valuable victory for the title contenders.
Newcastle headed south as firm favourites to seal an 11th league win of the season despite missing driving force Georgia Ohrdorf with an ankle injury.
Kvederaviciute’s return to the starting five was a huge boost to the visitors after the Lithuanian international missed the previous weekend’s trip to Barking Abbey.
And despite not training all week after recovering from a swollen knee, the Eagles’ leading scorer managed a mammoth 34 minutes on her return to action.
Kvederaviciute’s contribution would prove crucial to a Newcastle side that needed every last ounce of energy to see off a late Rebels’ assault.
But it was Koop who proved to be Bunten’s star performer as the fast-improving German bagged a huge double double of 16 points and 14 rebounds.
Significantly, the veteran centre stayed out of foul trouble to play a key role down the stretch.
And it was Koop who hit two from two from the free throw line in the final minute to fire the Eagles 69-68 ahead and finally kill off Essex’s remarkable comeback.
The two teams were tied 17-17 after a tense first quarter but Newcastle cut loose towards the half.
Koop and skipper Giulia Simioni started to run the show at both ends of the court and Bunten’s side sealed the second period 20-12 to lead by eight at the half.
The Rebels rallied in the third period to maintain a foothold in a fixture that never failed to deliver in terms of drama.
But staunch defence from the Eagles meant the hosts still trailed by nine heading into the deciding stanza.
If home fans hoped for a miracle finish then their wishes were granted as Essex tied the game with four minutes to play.
The two team traded baskets until the dying seconds but when Jessy Ward’s triple rimmed out it was game over and two points to Newcastle.
On a day when joint leaders Leicester lost to a dangerous Durham outfit the Eagles could ill afford to slip to their own costly defeat.
And Bunten was a relieved may on his way back up the M1 last night ahead of next weekend’s trip to fierce rivals Sheffield Hatters.