A late pair of free throws proved the difference as the B. Braun Sheffield Sharks fell to a 79-77 defeat to Newcastle Eagles in the first leg of the playoff quarterfinals. Having trailed by seventeen at one stage, the comeback served as some consolation for the Yorkshire side. The Sharks travel to Worcester on Thursday aiming to overturn the deficit and advance to the next round.
Sharks – Nichols, Ratinho, Tuck, Lillard, Hemsley
Eagles – Edwards, Sayers, Defoe, Gordon, Fletcher
The game began with Rahmon Fletcher’s pass finding the large frame of Darius Defoe for the lay up for the Eagles. The Sharks duly responded with patient build up play ending in Kipper Nichols spotting Antwon Lillard for the finish. Nichols added four more of his own to respond to the marauding runs and consistent shooting of Fletcher, while Liillard’s three pointer put the Sharks within one point at 10-9. Sublime dribbling from Lillard again found Nichols, whose attempted lay up gave the side free throw chances. Shortly afterwards, Defoe’s drive to the basket and subsequent reverse lay up took the score to 16-13 in the Eagles’ favour. Effective screening from Rob Marsden late on gave Jeremy Hemsley room to fire a shot in from three point range.
Jordan Ratinho’s three pointer marked the third quarter’s arrival, with the game following the quickfire end-to-end pattern of the first quarter. Jeremy Hemsley’s deft finish after evading blockers was a highlight of the period, but the Sharks began to struggle containing the multi-faceted offense of their opponents. Fletcher was the architect, responding with a three with his agility and pace elusive for the Sharks defense. Nichols returned to the fore, his three keeping his side close at 35-34. The tandem of Fletcher and Justin Gordon now took charge, the latter’s all round play and comfort from range combining well with Cortez Edwards as the Eagles quickly built a lead of nine. A cross court pass from Fletcher then found Louis Sayers to bank the three pointer. Fletcher rounded the half up with a driving lay up after Evan Maxwell’s steal, with the Eagles ahead 52-40.
A high scoring third quarter began with Defoe once again dominating the paint, while Fletcher’s solo drive and fine left handed finish added to a 9-0 run. Said run was soon ended by Bennett Koch’s simple lay up. Hemsley’s stole from Fletcher to go on a solo run and powerful dunk, only for Edward’s to respond with hid own dunk for Newcastle. Lillard then spotted Ratinho, and after intricate play, his arching three gave the Sharks hope. Both sides were now scoring freely, Gordon keeping the Eagles ticking over as Ratinho replied with a rebound and fast break lay up. More paint play from Hemsley kept the Sharks close, with his usual distanced effectiveness somewhat reduced throughout, as the Sharks headed into the final quarter still eleven points behind.
Whatever was said in the break between quarters seemed to have an instant impact in the Sharks camp, with Bennett Koch’s turning two renewing confidence and belief in the home team. They started to slowly chip away at the Eagles’ lead, with bullish play from Rob Marsden and enhanced defense from the side frustrating the Eagles attack. An instinctive Koch lay up, having dropped the ball in the build up, lead Sheffield on a 9-0 run in cutting the deficit to just two points. A dubious call went in the Sharks’ favour, Lillard’s drive and lay up standing despite seeming to travel, to the discontent of the opposing bench. Mike Tuck’s screen gave Nicholas Lewis space for a trademark deep three from the centre, meanwhile Lillard’s sustained rebounding and leadership allowed his side to attack at will as the Eagles became very tentative. Lillard’s neat finish after squeezing through the defense to give the Sharks the lead at 75-73, their 16-3 run only undone by free throws from the opposition. Fletcher’s meandering run equalled the score soon after. Hemsley’s journey to the paint for the lay up set up a 77-77 scoreline as Sharks head coach Atiba Lyons called a timeout with 43.4 seconds left. Despite fighting back from an at times dangerously one-sided score, the Sharks could not stop Defoe from getting the foul, the big man capitalising on two free throws that now separate the sides ahead of the second leg in Worcester.
In a difficult tie that truly challenged the Sharks’ mental fortitude, their fightback has inspired hope that they can overcome the higher seeded Eagles. This is thanks to important performances from a number of players, yet it was Jordan Ratinho who shone brightest. The Californian ended the game with 14 points, 9 rebounds and 2 assists with his consistency throughout aiding his team’s recovery.