By Marko Vranic
B. Braun Sheffield Sharks reached the BBL Championship Playoffs for the 26th consecutive season with a 96-91 overtime victory over Bristol Flyers. With a loss for Surrey Scorchers earlier in the day, the Sharks merely required a win today to qualify, with the team’s offense sealing their place in the latter stages. In doing so, they also snapped a streak of five successive away defeats.
Flyers – Wilcher, Okereafor, Lockett, Delpeche, Baker
Sharks – Nichols, Ratinho, Tuck, Lillard, Hemsley
The game was fast-flowing from tip-off, with both teams scoring freely from the offset. Following Justin Baker’s three-pointer from space on the left, which gave the hosts a 13-10 lead, Bennett Koch neatly worked the ball to Jeremy Hemsley to finish the three – their first points outside the paint. They then established a larger lead, with Jordan Ratinho finishing off a fast break for an 18-13 lead. With Koch remaining a nuisance for Bristol around the basket, the Yorkshire outfit headed into the second quarter with a 24-19 advantage.
The Flyers’ Ben Mockford started the second quarter brightly, with a pair of three-pointers part of a 7-2 spell that equalled the game at 26-26. Soon after, Teddy Okereafor capitalised on a misplaced Sharks pass to give the Flyers a slender 30-28 lead midway through the period. However, intricate passing moves, coupled with Kipper Nichols’ all-court play, restored a Sharks lead further enhanced by another Hemsley three (of sixteen first half points for the American), and an eight-point halftime lead.
Sharks captain Mike Tuck opened proceedings in the third quarter, nailing a three, only to be met by a three from Flyers’ Eric Lockett (who posted 26 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists). A notable passage of play was from the ever-impressive rookie Hemsley, whose interception at 47-51 lead to his own lay up, earning a foul in the process and slotting the free throw home. Yet whenever the Sharks increased their lead, their opponents always found a response, Nicholas Lewis’ three from deep immediately cancelled out by Baker (who finished with 28 points of his own). Koch expertly improvised to finish from Lewis’ rimmed shot from range, to leave the Sharks holding a vulnerable 63-58 lead with a quarter left to play.
The fourth quarter was initially very tense, with nerves making for a reduced scoring rate from both sides. Lockett’s attack to the rim reduced the deficit to 4, but Hemsley yet again responded, burying a floating three with typical finesse. With the score at 73-69, Antwon Lillard brilliantly dug out a pass to Hemsley for another three, despite having fallen to the ground and been surrounded by defenders. But the Flyers remained stubborn, with Mockford’s brilliant low pass finding an unchecked Okereafor for the lay up.
With an 80-77 advantage with just a few seconds left, many would have been forgiven for thinking the game over once Ratinho stepped up for two free throws for the away side. Missing both, Lockett lead a fast break and with just 0.9 seconds left, buried the three to take the game to overtime, a late Hemsley half-court shot agonisingly catching the rim and bouncing out to the Sharks’ frustration.
Overtime was marked by edgy, physical play from both sides, with free throws dominating until Ratinho’s three-pointer gave the Sharks some much-needed breathing space at 89-84. Good, slick ball rotation later resulted in Nichols picking out Koch for the basket, and with it an away victory that has proved elusive of late.
With five Sharks players reaching double figures for points, in what was an impressive attacking display, a number of players could make a case for MVP. Yet nobody matched the level of Jeremy Hemsley, whose sustained brilliance in accumulating a career best 30 points, 3 rebounds and 4 assists was a key factor in his side’s victory and playoff qualification.