Sunday afternoon promises to be a bittersweet occasion for BBL fans.
On the one hand, the season’s BBL Play-Off Final matchup between Leicester Riders and Newcastle Eagles promises to be another mouth-watering occasion between the two best clubs in the country. On the other hand, it signals the end of what has been a simply electric basketball season.
But before we even dare think about the end of the basketball season – there is the aforementioned BBL Play-Off Final, held for the first time in over a decade at Wembley Arena.
For the second consecutive season, the game sees Leicester face Newcastle, with the Eagles emerging victorious in last year’s showpiece to seal a clean sweep of four trophies.
Roll on a year and tides have turned. Whereas the all-dominating Eagles would initially be classed as favourites, it’s instead Rob Paternostro’s Leicester Riders that head into the final as the arguable favourites, having beaten Newcastle in January’s BBL Cup Final and stormed to their first-ever BBL Championship title, leaving the Eagles in their wake.
Despite their incredible season, however, Riders head coach Paternostro has nothing but the upmost respect for Fab Flournoy’s side heading into the Play-Off Final.
“I expect Newcastle to be a good team; they’ve been a good team all season,” he said.
“They’re 25-8, loaded with talent and they have guys that have played in big games. They will be a difficult opponent and a team that everybody around the league respects.”
Riders head to Wembley off the back of a stunning second-leg win over Plymouth Raiders, which saw Leicester perform incredibly in the game’s third quarter, to come back from being 15 points down in the game and one point on aggregate; initially taking a 14-point lead into the home tie.
“I expect Newcastle to be a good team; they’ve been a good team all season”
However, Riders haven’t taken their foot off the gas in the wake of their semi-final victory.
“It’s been an intense week of practice, no question about it,” reveals Paternostro.
“After the game against Plymouth, we took a day or two to get ourselves back, but I told the guys today that this has been as good a week of practice as we’ve had in a long time. The way that the season’s schedule ended for us, we didn’t really have an opportunity to practice like this, and we’ve seen a lot of improvement this week and we feel really good going into the game.
“We’ve been able to use the time we’ve had to our advantage and work on a few things that we needed to work on. The good thing about our team is that when we practice, we practice hard and there has been a real edge this week.”
Having enjoyed a season that has confirmed the current Riders team as the most successful in the club’s long history, much has been said about the side and their defensive strengths, with three players – Zaire Taylor, league MVP Drew Sullivan and Anthony Rowe – all being named in the BBL Defensive Team of the Year. The result was an incredible record which saw Riders go unbeaten in the league at home all season – a habit that has helped bring the group closer together.
“I think when you’re on a team that wins 40-plus games; you’re going to be a lot happier – no question about it,” confesses the Riders play-caller.
“What has been good about this team is that, from when we started, there were no hidden agendas. Everyone, from the players to the coaching staff, from practice to game day, did everything in their power to try and get a win. There was nothing that clouded that, no individuality and that tone was set early. Any coach will tell you that, when you’ve got that, it’s a pleasure to coach.”
This weekend will see Riders return to an arena which hosted their last Play-Off Final back in 2001, where Riders beat Sheffield 84-75 – Wembley.
“Whenever you go to a final, you know it’s a big occasion and it’s going to be a good atmosphere,” says Paternostro.
“When you hear Wembley; I don’t care if you’re from Leicester, the US or any part of the world – that name is synonymous with a big event. I think we’re all looking forward to that and I think that our fans, a lot of whom have been there before to cheer on the Riders, have all commented on how great a place it is to play and to watch basketball. Every guy is looking forward to stepping out on the court on Sunday.
“I was playing in the league at that point and a lot of the fans mentioned that to me at the weekend,” he continues when asked about Riders’ history at Wembley.
“They remembered going there and how much they enjoyed themselves. One of the best things about playing sports is anticipation. I think it’s a great feeling as a coach and as a player and, this week, I think that both teams will be excited about the anticipation of taking the floor on Sunday.”