Lions hold off late Phoenix rise
London Lions 89-79 Cheshire Phoenix (15-18, 34-17, 25-18, 15-24)
Lions – Zubčić 19, Soko 14, Sharma 13; Phoenix – Austin 26, Anderson 15, Teague 12
After losing a close 7Days EuroCup contest against Gran Canaria earlier in the week, the London Lions got a much-needed 89-79 win over Cheshire Phoenix.
The win for London maintains their grip on the top spot in the BBL Championship and builds some momentum heading into the BBL Cup Finals on Sunday.
Fortunately for the home team, the Cheshire Phoenix travelled to the CopperBox Arena with some bodies missing.
James Price stepped in for usual coach Ben Thomas – who was away from the team to welcome his newborn into the world; Lloyd Daniels broke his hand in practice; and illness hit others in the locker room.
Cheshire’s Larry Austin put in a massive effort with 26 points to keep the visitors in the fight, but Tomislav Zubčić’s 19 points led a balanced Lions attack.
After being named MVP, the Croatian top scorer told Azania Stewart on the broadcast: “It was a tough game coming off the loss in EuroCup, but we managed to give our effort and get the win.
“It’s definitely been a tough schedule, but we have almost a full team, so it’ll be easier to play with a full roster.”
The Lions’ Jordan Taylor opened up the contest with an in-rhythm, mid-range jump shot coming around a screen on the left side.
This was followed by back-to-back drives from Taylor and his teammate Luke Nelson.
Josh Sharma showed his range for the team by stepping out behind the three-point line after the defence collapsed on Nelson when the point guard found his way to the bucket on an out-of-bounds play.
The guard passed out of the drive, and the ball found its way to the big man at the top of the three-point arc.
It was an good early stretch for the home team, but it didn’t take long for the travellers to warm up. Cheshire’s Tahjai Teague got a few shots to go, and Jamell Anderson scored from three-point territory.
Getting back to what the crowd loves him for, Sharma threw down a dunk off a slick pass from Nelson, which was instigated by Sam Dekker picking the pocket of Teague on the other end.
The Phoenix pushed ahead thanks to some Larry Austin action – he got involved as a scorer and a defender and assisted Teague to go up 15-11 with two minutes to go, and Cheshire finished the first ten minutes with the lead.
London’s bench mob helped them get back into the game in the second quarter. Ovie Soko attacked the rack, and Lions coach Ryan Schmidt unleashed Mo Soluade from distance – he hit three out of four shots from three for nine quick points in his first 10 minutes.
This helped open up a gap for the home team. Taylor found Sharma for another big dunk on the alley-oop, and Tomislav Zubčić scored five quick points after a couple of free throws and a three-pointer.
Teague scored for Cheshire, but as the first half closed, Taylor recognised the dwindling clock and got into the lane for a walk-off layup.
The second half began for London with a Taylor-Sharma pick-and-roll, but the Phoenix were well prepared for a lob play – the veteran Lions point guard recognised the paint defence and found Dekker wide open in the corner.
Sharma punished the Phoenix by getting open on a fast-break opportunity for a transition dunk, then blocked Austin and Evans on successive defensive possessions.
As is often the case, the Lions’ defence locked down, and within two minutes, a 21-point gap had opened up.
That’s when Zubčić stepped up. He’s not known for attacking the paint, but Taylor served up an open lane for the forward to get a layup and a foul. He was left wide open on the perimeter for three on the next possession. And keen to show off his versatility, he demanded the ball on the low post and hit a turnaround fadeaway against tough defence.
The Phoenix kept battling despite the growing gap as Maceo Jack got to the line for a couple of free throws.
Cheshire’s Jamell Anderson dealt with the pressure well on the next play. He saved the deflected ball in the corner with no real angle and created enough separation on a baseline drive to find Jack on a cross-court pass for a tough fadeaway.
Austin then got to the line for multiple sets of free throws. He hit four straight and the Phoenix upped the defensive pressure to force some Lions turnovers.
Austin kept this momentum going into the fourth quarter and opened up the final frame with a layup to cut the gap to 17.
Cheshire continued to chip away and were within 11 with three minutes to go. But London’s Sam Dekker drove the entire length of the court for a layup to keep the opponents at bay.
A gorgeous pass from Cheshire’s Will Neighbour to a baseline-cutting Teague kept the pressure on London, and a Jack steal pushed the ball ahead to Austin to get loose in transition – he got fouled on the layup and scored the free throw.
Cheshire missed back-to-back open threes as the game clock dipped below a minute, which led to a Soko layup to keep the lead at 13, which put it out of reach with 30 seconds to go.
The late challenge gave the Lions a contest that will have helped sharpen their minds going into the BBL Cup Finals on Sunday, but it marked Cheshire’s fourth loss to London this season.
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