How London Lions won the All-Stars Championship

Sunday’s inaugural Betway British Basketball All-Stars Championship brought a day full of excitement to The O2 – and to the London Lions, their first ever silverware.

The Lions entered proceedings in the third match, having just seen Bristol Flyers shock the Newcastle Eagles thanks to their astute use of the ‘Golden Buzzer’ to maximise their two minutes of double points during ‘Power Play’.

With Justin Robinson at the helm, the Lions weren’t to fall victim to the same fate and sensationally shut out the Glasgow Rocks for the entirety of their Power Play.

Even the title sponsors would be unlikely to accept bets on the Rocks’ GB forward Gareth Murray becoming the first player to become sin-binned for amassing three personal fouls, and he was duly sent off from the court to briefly reduce his team to just four players in another of the competition’s innovations.

It was a dream start for the Lions as they opened with a 10-27 win.

Sheffield Sharks pulled off a magical comeback against the Worcester Wolves with a last-second 5-point winner before the Lions returned to the court.

With one win apiece, Bristol Flyers and London Lions knew that whoever won this contest would progress straight through to the semi-finals and enjoy a rest without needing to play a third group stage game.

Once again, the Lions superbly shut down their opponents in Power Play, which was proving to be a key feature of the All-Stars format. The Flyers couldn’t get a shot away as Justin Robinson continued to tick down the clock and, although the Lions’ Power Play wasn’t very fruitful either, the passage to the semi-finals was secured, 6-24. The two Lions wins were achieved with the two lowest scores against in the whole tournament.

Leicester Riders swiftly followed them through to the next stage with a win against the Sharks.

Surrey Scorchers, who lost to the Riders in the day’s opening game, were sent home after losing to the Worcester Wolves, learning to their cost that the Golden Buzzer had to be hit in the opening 8 minutes having left it too late.

From here on it was win-or-go-home and the Eagles required two periods of overtime to take down the Rocks, for whom it was to be the end of an unhappy – and costly – weekend down in London. After losing two first team players to injury in Friday’s friendly defeat to the Lions, they bowed out having failed to win either of their games at The O2.

The Flyers beat the Wolves and the Eagles beat the Sharks to complete the line-up for the semi-finals, drawn on court by tournament backer Barry Hearn. The Eagles were assigned the second game, to allow for a rest after their qualifying match, and their old foes Leicester Riders were pulled out of the trophy bowl to face them. That meant it was a rematch for the Lions against the Flyers.

In a tentative start to the semi-final, the heat got turned up as the Flyers activated their power play. The Lions looked set to survive it relatively unscathed, trailing 10-9, before Coach Kapoulas frantically called a timeout with seconds remaining to try and salvage one last double-points shot.

In the hectic scenes, the clock ticked over into the final four minutes before Lions coach Mariusz Karol hit the Golden Buzzer, so the Lions would have to make it through without the use of their Power Play.

Paul Guede came up big with a monster rejection and the Lions led 18-16 in the incredibly tense closing stages. A Flyers attack was knocked out of bounds with just five seconds remaining. Playing to a running clock, it may just have been enough to finish the Flyers off but in the heat of the moment, Coach Karol appeared to make a flawed decision by calling a timeout. This seemed to only benefit the Flyers, giving them one last chance to draw up how to use their remaining possession. However, with Brandon Peel doing his Mr Tickle impression with arms everywhere, the inbound was deflected away and the Lions – by hook or by crook – found themselves through to the Final.

More drama was to follow in the other semi-final as new Eagles point guard Saah Nimley hit a Power Play shot from downtown worth 10 points, which turned the game on its head, and Terry Martin hit the winner with a long 2 to complete their unlikely comeback in the tournament to reach the Final.

London Lions’ only previous appearance at The O2 was the Play-off Final defeat to the Newcastle Eagles in 2015, and so it was to prove a rematch of sorts.

The Eagles were 5-14 ahead in the opening minutes before the Lions once again made smart use of their Power Play to go 19-14 up.

Following their timeout, the Eagles pulled back in front but Brandon Peel came up big with 7 points and the Lions led 26-20.

Jaysean Paige answered the Eagles’ prayers, connecting with a 5-point shot to stun The O2 and put them back within reach.

However, the Lions desperately held on to a slender 26-25 lead and, after a momentary pause, the referee signalled for the end of the game, sparking jubilant scenes on the court.

Hometown hero Justin Robinson was awarded the tournament MVP, and his cool head was key to the Lions adapting to the confusion of the one-off format.

Although Demonte Flannigan was among the scorers, the up-and-down nature of the tournament didn’t suit the powerful centres. Instead it was the more athletic big men who fared better, and the ability of Paul Guede on D and Brandon Peel to score difficult shots and pluck a ball out of nowhere were decisive for the Lions.

The real money man collecting buckets for the Lions was Momcilo Latinovic, capping an excellent pre-season and looking ready to terrorise BBL teams once the regular action gets underway on Friday.

Despite being the only senior player not to get any court time, captain Joe Ikhinmwin displayed the broadest smile in London last night after holding aloft the All-Stars Championship trophy.

It was a landmark moment for the club to win its first piece of silverware, five years after reforming as the London Lions, and ten years after the franchise’s only previous cup win.

The non-traditional competition format offered an opportunity to shake up the natural order of things following a long period of dominance in British basketball by a small group of teams, and the Lions seized upon it in front of a hometown crowd. With European participation mooted in a year’s time, the first step towards the next level was taken on Sunday.

About Andy 106 Articles
London Lions season ticket holder and frequent away follower. Also followed my football team up and down the country and the leagues for 20 years. Sixers fan but sadly from afar.

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