By Marko Vranic
Plymouth Raiders held on for a 79-76 victory against B. Braun Sheffield Sharks as the Yorkshire side came agonisingly close to a comeback win at Plymouth Pavilions. Consistent defence from the hosts, along with at times overwhelming attacking play, left the Sharks with just too much to do as they battled back late on. The result sees no changes in the standings, but means the away side now cannot finish fourth in the all-important playoff seeding push.
Raiders – McGill, Hamilton, Porter-Bunton, Dusha, Neighbour
Sharks – Ratinho, Tuck, Lillard, Koch, Hemsley
In the 60th league meeting between the two, it was the Sharks who set the pace early on, a 10-4 run set up by multiple intricate passing plays into the post as well as a clever spin move from Antwon Lillard for two points. This only awoke the hosts from their sluggish start, with two Rickey McGill solo efforts in the paint and fine link up play between Elvisi Dusha and Will Neighbour leading the Raiders on a 10-0 stretch. McGill’s pace in possession and Hamilton’s strength started to cause problems, but the Sharks were seeing plenty of openings to trail 16-12 after the first quarter.
The Sharks began the second period with Johde Campbell finding Oscar Baldwin for a strong finish under intense pressure. Raiders sub Ryan Beisty suddenly came to the fore, his step back three-pointer opening their second quarter account. An Isaiah Walker three-pointer from the corner extended their advantage to 21-14, with the Raiders impressing with their crisp, quick ball movement relentlessly finding shooters in space. Another Beisty three was met by Nicholas Lewis’ drive to the basket for the away team, but there were promising signs for the Sharks as they attempted to increase the scoreboard pressure on their opponents. Bennett Koch’s hustle in the paint was important, and soon Lillard found his range to score the Sharks’ first three-pointer. This surely inspired Nicholas Lewis, ever a danger from far out, whose casual three equalled the score at 30-30. However, the tandem of McGill and Ashley Hamilton continued to cause havoc, and a 7-0 run split the sides at half time.
Captain Mike Tuck got the Sharks underway in the third quarter, finishing at the low post. Jeremy Hemsley also executed brilliantly when doubled up on a drive for a lay up, despite the constant defensive resilience and organisation of the hosts. The Raiders now reigned three-pointers, with back-to-back threes from Neighbour, as well as two more from Mike Morsell, threatening to take the game away from the Sharks with a 51-38 lead. Koch and Jordan Ratinho now began to combine well, the former elintercepting a floating pass and finding the latter for the breakaway lay up. Patient build up play from the away side then allowed Ratinho’s three to reduce their deficit to 53-45. The Raiders refused to let their form dip, and used their array of attacking options to full capacity, with Morsell’s three and Hamilton’s neat pivot giving them a 62-51 lead ahead of the final quarter.
It was a quiet start to the fourth, a Hemsley drive immediately met by McGill’s three-pointer. The momentum now started to shift, with Tuck and Hemsley both adding points and as a collective frustrating the Raiders on defence. Good coordination from Ratinho and Lillard added three more points, Ratinho driving in and attracting attention from the opposition before finding the free Lillard to sink the shot from range. Hemsley and Ratinho also capitalised from range for a 70-68 deficit, the Sharks now dominating as the Raiders floundered for answers. Dusha now responded for the Raiders, his quick move finding McGill under the basket for the score, as the home side edged 76-73 ahead. An inbound failure for the Sharks after stubborn Raiders defence was a missed opportunity, but Ratinho’s three with 5.5 seconds left made it 78-76, and made for a nervous ending. The Sharks managed to turn the ball over soon after, Hemsley leading the charge as his three point attempt just missed, the Raiders leaving with the slender win.
The attacking flair the Sharks are capable of was evident in the fourth quarter, but a number of players impressed. Hemsley typically scored well, finishing with 17 points. Ratinho and Lillard added a further 15 points each (Ratinho just shy of the double-double with 9 rebounds). Yet again though, Bennett Koch was the Sharks’ main threat, his consistency in the paint paying off as he accrued 11 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists to make the long trip home as the Sharks MVP.