Ian MacLeod paid tribute to his never-say-die Newcastle Eagles after the BBL’s most successful franchise recovered from a 20-point deficit to keep their playoff dreams alive.
Leicester Riders will be wondering how they failed to take a double-digit lead into tomorrow’s semi-final second leg following a lightning opening to a see-saw clash.
But Newcastle bounced back from the worst start imaginable to finish with a flourish and carry the momentum into a match that looks too close to call.
“After the first period we started to combine stops with scores and we never gave up,” said MacLeod.
“We’re still in this and it’s win or go home now.
“There was a lot of nervous energy out there at the start and we just didn’t take care of the basketball.
“There was a lack of communication and suddenly it snowballed and we were 20 points down.
“I feel pretty good when you look at where we were after the first 10 minutes.
“If somebody had said we’d lose that game by a point after giving Leicester 36 in the first quarter I’d have taken that.”
Newcastle’s sensational recovery owed much to league MVP contender Rahmon Fletcher who added six assists to his game high 34 points.
And although backcourt partner Cortez Edwards converted just three of his 14 field goal attempts, the Eagles rookie still came away with a vital double double of 12 points and 11 rebounds to keep his team in contention.
Two-legged basketball ties aren’t won or lost in the first quarter but Newcastle did their level best to hand Leicester the semi-final initiative following an atrocious start.
The Riders poured in their biggest opening period tally in almost 10 years as they stretched out to a 36-18 lead.
But the Eagles only had themselves to blame as a series of weak turnovers allowed the league champions to seize control.
Newcastle simply couldn’t buy a defensive board as William Lee and Mo Walker bossed the offensive glass.
And the 140th meeting between two fierce rivals could hardly have been more one sided.
The Eagles, of course, were equally unconvincing from the tip when the two teams met on Tyneside last month.
But MacLeod’s men rallied after the break to defeat Leicester by 10 that night and make the Riders wait another week for their Championship title.
Battle-hardened and bidding for a second piece of silverware this season, Newcastle have made a nerve-wracking habit of coming from behind to take the clutch wins.
And a much-improved second quarter trimmed Leicester’s lead to 11 points at the half as the men in black finally found some playoff form.
Fletcher, chasing a third league MVP award, looked a shadow of his all-action best during a disastrous first period.
But the second player in BBL history to top the league standings in scoring and assists burst into life to haul his team back into contention before the break.
Fletcher had 16 points and three assists heading into the third quarter and, not for the first time this season, the Eagles skipper was ably supported by Justin Gordon.
Named in the latest BBL Team of the Week, the US forward returned to the floor where he was crowned BBL Cup final MVP earlier this year.
And Newcastle’s big-game rookie racked up another double-figure haul after a typically tenacious opening 20 minutes.
Riders rallied after the break to extend their lead to 16 points heading into the final period.
But the Eagles’ resilience against the BBL’s big guns has served them well all season and MacLeod’s men turned the tie on its head with an assured finish in complete contrast to that horror start.
Remarkably, Newcastle outscored Leicester 24-9 in the fourth quarter to give themselves every chance of claiming a seventh playoff crown on Sunday.
And it was only some lax defensive work at the death that prevented the Eagles from taking a lead into tomorrow’s second leg.
When Edwards hit one of two free throws in the 39th minute Newcastle led for the first time.
But Lee’s cool head from the bonus stripe allowed Riders to reclaim the advantage and take the season series 4-3 heading into a winner-takes-all second leg.
Find out how to see this Thursday’s second leg with coverage from Sky Sports on our How To Watch May Madness page.