|Leicester Riders WBBL||19||15||20||19||73||Loss|
|Newcastle Eagles WBBL||17||20||20||22||79||Win|
So this is May Madness.
Newcastle Eagles captain Ali Gorrell had promised to bring the chaos to the WBBL’s newly branded playoffs.
And as late gatecrashers to the post-season party, Gorrell and co. proved that the impossible is possible.
Never before has a number seven seed sunk a number two side in the WBBL playoffs.
But step forward Newcastle’s ‘Super Six’ as the short-handed Eagles pulled off one of the biggest shocks in British basketball history to seal a semi-final berth.
See more pictures from this history making game on the photos page.
A game high 26 points and seven steals from Abby Lowe represented a statement game for the fast-improving guard.
Maddy McVicar’s double double of 13 points and 10 rebounds caught the eye and Gorrell’s 24 points, eight rebounds and seven assists paced another superb performance from the league MVP contender.
But all six Eagles players deserved the plaudits as Deborah Rodriguez Perez, Rachael Bland and Millie Oates wrote their names in Newcastle basketball history.
The omens weren’t good for the homecourt Eagles — playing as the ‘away’ team in this quarter-final tie — in the wake of three successive losses against red hot favourites Leicester.
The Riders headed to Tyneside having won each of this season’s fixtures between the two teams by 25 points or more.
And a 72-47 victory at the Vertu Motors Arena in March showcased Jesper Sundberg’s side at their most destructive and well-drilled best.
Newcastle have since lost Jorjah Smith after the Aussie guard chose to return home early.
And there was further bad news for the women in black prior to tip-off with the confirmation that hometown favourite Ori Chukwu-Etu had failed to recover from a head injury sustained at Nottingham last month.
The odds were well and truly stacked against the Eagles but Bunten’s players have often been at their best with their backs against the wall.
A roster that recovered from a 1-9 start to the league season, before launching a come-from-behind sprint into the playoff picture, epitomises underdog spirit.
And that never-say-die attitude was there for all to see during a sensational first half from the WBBL’s seventh-placed finishers.
Newcastle’s six-player rotation stayed focused and fought hard to establish an unlikely 37-34 lead at the half.
But if the advantage was unexpected then it was fully deserved and Riders faced a difficult conversation in the locker room.
Key to the Eagles’ success was a stunning display from Lowe as the former Barking Abbey star bagged 17 points and five steals in the opening 20 minutes.
Lowe’s remarkable transition from bench player to nailed-on starter is just one of the fascinating footnotes to Newcastle’s 2020/21 story.
And the British guard stamped her mark on May Madness from the tip with a series of cool finishes and critical interceptions.
Leicester’s strongarm approach to a must-win game for the East Midlanders meant the Eagles went to the line 13 times in the first half.
Gorrell converted seven of her nine shots from the bonus stripe and the league’s leading scorer added four rebounds and four assists to her 11 points before the break.
But Rodriguez Perez’s three first half fouls piled added pressure on a side sorely lacking an inside presence.
The Spaniard must have been under orders to tread carefully after the restart and a neat jump shot to fire the Eagles 41-39 ahead underlined the forward’s value at both ends of the court.
Rodriguez Perez did pick up a fourth foul in the closing stages of the third quarter but another invaluable score seconds later helped preserve Newcastle’s lead.
And with 10 minutes to play the first upset of the post-season was still very much on the cards.
Bunten will barely believe that the fairytale finish came true. But it did. And the Eagles head to Worcester next week just one win away from a place in this season’s playoff final.