BBL Play-Off final
London Lions 88-80 Leicester Riders (22-14, 44-36, 69-55)
(Lions: Best/Taylor, 15; Oni, 14; Phillip, 12 – Riders: Jackson, 20; Love, 17; Mackenzie, 14)
A rematch of last season’s final that didn’t disappoint in terms of excitement, particularly in the final two minutes where the Riders battled from a 16-point deficit to bring it to within five with 1:18 remaining.
But for Rob Paternostro’s men, that was as close as it got as London were able to ice the game at the foul line to complete the domestic hat-trick.
Jordan Taylor and Aaron Best both led London with 15 points with the former dishing out seven assists to claim the MVP award.
“It’s been amazing I think a lot of guys in our position chase NBA and EuroLeague but for me, I can honestly say this has been the most special, because you get to build something not only in the country but this is the most at home I have felt,” Taylor said afterwards.
“When you look back on today but also reflect on the entire season, I am proud of our group,” Lions coach Ryan Schmidt added.
“A lot of achievements and a lot of firsts and this is just a special group of individuals and professionals and I tell them all the time, I am proud and honoured to be able to coach these guys.”
Miye Oni added 14 in an explosive performance for the former NBA star. Zach Jackson led Leicester with a game-high 20 points along with nine boards.
Driving down the lane for the one-handed dunk, and following it up with a triple from the wing, Oni signalled a statement of intent in a quick start from the Lions.
However, the Riders were matching London blow for blow as Patrick Whelan and Carrington Love attacked the frontline and took a 12-11 lead midway through the first, thanks to a score inside from Darien Nelson-Henry on his final appearance for Leicester.
Backed by a ferocious local crowd, the reigning Cup and Championship winners restored their advantage with less than a minute left in the first quarter, as Tarik Phillip connected with back-to-back three-pointers to give his side a 22-14 lead after the opening period.
Already on the ropes, Leicester needed to fight back. In the opening possessions of the second quarter, they did just that – cutting the deficit to three points thanks to a triple from Zach Jackson and a driving lay-up from Love.
But the determined Lions recovered from a mini blip and extended their lead to 36-24 with 4:34 remaining in the half, highlighted by a transition dunk from Oni and a lay-up in traffic from Tomislav Zubcic.
It was a solid half from London, who shot 51% from the field, but Leicester, despite trailing, had the last laugh at the buzzer, as a fadeaway jumper from Kimbal Mackenzie narrowed the gap to single digits at the break.
Both teams were unable to find their rhythm in the early stages of the third. Taylor drilled a three from the top to keep the Lions in front by double digits as they threatened to breeze clear.
A mid-range jumper from Luke Nelson for London extended the gap to 14 before Jackson looked to spark some life into Leicester with a three-pointer. Coach Schmidt responded with a timeout despite his side 61-51 to the good, midway through the third.
London pulled away again, on great link-up play between Nelson and Josh Sharma, which ended with the latter scoring over Aaron Menzies to cap an 8-2 spurt to hand the Lions a 69-53 lead with 1:49 left.
With Riders only adding two more points in that remaining 1:49, it was vital for them to go on a run, while getting stops in the early stages of the final period.
In the first two minutes, they were able to get to the foul line at will, where the league leaders in free throw percentage (79.9%) narrowed the gap to single digits.
From there, the points rained like confetti as both teams traded three-point blows within a frantic spell of just over a minute of action, leaving the Lions leading 80-69.
Down but by no means out, Leicester fought back as a beautiful lay-up in transition by Mackenzie made the game interesting with 2:27 left with Lions up 82-75.
Mackenzie was at it again with less than 90 seconds left as his three from the wing made it a two-possession game. The Riders then got a stop and could have narrowed matters to just two points.
Agonisingly on the next play, Loving had an open look from beyond the arc, but his attempt rimmed out, having thought about nestling in the bucket.
From there, the Lions sealed a terrific treble from the foul line in a second straight post-season classic at the O2 Arena between the two sides.
“We did a lot what we wanted to do,” Riders coach Paternostro said.
“I thought we attacked the basket, we got 37 free throws in this game, I thought physically we were up for the challenge, we just didn’t make the shots.”