Beaten but unbowed Newcastle Eagles face a last-minute body count ahead of tomorrow’s cross-border clash in Glasgow following a fraught end to a difficult week.
The BBL Cup holders lost both Rahmon Fletcher and Kyle Williams after the break as a bruising battle in Sheffield stretched the visitors’ resources to the limit.
And with three senior players already absent in response to British basketball’s Covid -19 secure play protocols, Newcastle are down to the bare bones prior to a typically tough trip north.
Caretaker coach Gary Stronach was powerless to prevent a fourth defeat of the season as his depleted roster ran out of steam — and options — down the stretch.
But the Eagles’ laudable resilience and refusal to surrender deserves recognition as a battling performance barely reflected the final scoreline.
Earlier this week you would have got long odds on Steve Bruce staying in charge for his 1,000th game as a manager and double-winning Ian MacLeod being absent from last night’s clash.
But in a remarkable turn of events, Newcastle United’s embattled boss was granted an unlikely reprieve ahead of Sunday afternoon’s Premier League clash against Tottenham Hotspur.
And it was the unfortunate MacLeod who was missing from match night duty after a fresh wave of Covid swept through the Vertu Motors Arena.
Newcastle’s playcaller is isolating alongside lead assistant Jack Burgess, managing director Paul Blake and three frontline players.
Duke Shelton, who dropped 11 points and hauled down 10 boards the last time these two teams met, was also confined to quarters back home on Tyneside.
And neither Darius Defoe, who bagged a place in this week’s BBL All-Star 5 on the back of a huge double double last week, nor sharpshooter Louis Sayers made the trip to South Yorkshire.
Stronach stepped up to take charge of a BBL fixture for the first time in 11 years but the former Plymouth Raiders playcaller had barely moved from the Newcastle bench before he found his team 9-0 down.
The Eagles, with Daniel Johnson-Thompson promoted to the starting five, took more than three minutes to find their feet following a disrupted build-up to a traditionally tough fixture.
But a much-needed Terrell Vinson two-pointer got the ball rolling for the men in black.
And a gutsy response to that nightmare start saw Stronach’s side close the first period with a mightily impressive 15-10 run.
If Sheffield, who pinched a three-point win on Tyneside two weeks ago, thought under-strength Newcastle would lie down and roll over then the hosts seriously underestimated the Eagles’ appetite for a fight.
Unsurprisingly, Fletcher was being double teamed at every opportunity as soon as the visitors had their hands on the ball.
But in-form Corey Johnson and US guard Wesley Person Jr drove home an impressive response to that early adversity and Newcastle started the second quarter on top.
Back-to-back Johnson-Thompson twos levelled the score at 19-19 as the busy young Brit made the most of his increased court time and Vinson’s early foul trouble.
Sheffield simply couldn’t find a way to break down Stronach’s fit and focused six-man rotation as the Eagles enjoyed plenty of success on the fast break.
But the Sharks closed out the half on the back of a 6-2 burst to open up a 37-31 lead heading into the locker room.
Fletcher had played all 20 minutes but the BBL’s two-time MVP had converted just one of his 10 shooting attempts before the break.
And Newcastle’s vocal following knew this game was far from over…if only their talismanic skipper could finally find his range.
In fact, it was Johnson and Person Jr who got hot after the break but a battling third quarter was marred by a hand injury to the lively Williams.
The US guard’s night was over with more than 15 minutes on the clock but remarkably the Eagles found a way to take their first lead of the night — Vinson firing the visitors 55-54 in front.
Sheffield regrouped to lead by seven heading into the fourth quarter and Newcastle’s task became tougher still 75 seconds after the restart.
Fletcher found himself at the bottom of a pile of bodies following a mid-court scrap for possession.
And the heartbeat of the Eagles was left clutching his right leg before he was carried from the court in obvious pain.
Sauveur Kande stepped off the bench and the product of Newcastle’s Academy made the most of his extended minutes.
But without five key players and fatigue kicking in there was no way back for the brave men in black.