BASKETBALL: Thunder fall at the first hurdle

NOT enough years. Not enough hours. Insufficient experience and practice time, according to two players, contributed to Worthing Thunder's failure to make a match of the biggest game in their two-year-long BBL franchise.

That and the qualities of the Newcastle Eagles, the dominant team of the last six years, combined as Eagles tore Thunder to shreds before winning 102-74.

Lithuanian guard Evaldas Zabas remarked: "We are young and inexperienced. Most of us were in the play-offs for the first time. We were maybe nervous and did not relax. Frustration kicked in and we went from the game plan and we didn't execute what the coach wanted us to do.

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"Newcastle are a great team, you can't make any mistakes against them. They knocked their shots down and never gave us the chance to come back at them. We knew they would analyse our players and we learned some new plays during the week."

Samuel Cricelli, joint-Thunder MVP this season, continued: "We put in a couple of new set-plays but we didn't have enough time to prepare. We only had one practice, on Wednesday, because the match was on Friday, our normal last practice night.

"When you go that far down it's very hard to get back. It was one of our worst performances this season. We've worked so hard and gone so far but we didn't feel like we played together, we didn't move well on offence, and we should have played better and competed."

Newcastle had retained their BBL Championship title seven days earlier, the moment Thunder beat Sheffield. Now Eagles on Friday commenced the defence of their second title, the play-offs, and little eighth-placed debutants Worthing felt the full rock-like force of the champions in no mood for messing.

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Their two league defeats at Worthing in December and January (104-90 and 105-99) Newcastle emphatically consigned to history. Unbeaten since, and strengthened by Drew Sullivan's arrival, they inflicted Thunder's third subsequent conquering (86-96 in the BBL Trophy at Worthing in February; 70-113 in the league at Newcastle in March).

Newcastle player-coach Fab Flournoy had more than the New Yorker's infamous incident of throwing his tactics board across court during that first defeat at the Thunderdome to live down. The smartest, most successful leader in the BBL's 2000s once again came back and demonstrated his credentials.

He started Charles Smith to ensure a quick-shooting start as well as a comprehensive outsizing of Worthing. And he appeared to have done homework on Thunder's other joint- MVP, Ville Makalainen, whose scoring factor failed unexpectedly on the night to match his defensive.

Eagles ripped into a 22-6 lead with a 16-2 run in which Great Britain captain Sullivan and Smith shared the 16 points. Then the outside shooting of Andrew Bridge and Joe Chapman lit up the arena. Two straight Chapman threes posted Eagles' 24-point interval lead.

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Runs of 8-0 and 11-4 piled on Thunder's misery into a 35-point deficit (77-42). Then only triples by Sherrad Prezzie-Blue and skipper James Brame, in a 13-2 recovery streak that helped even up the third-quarter scoring, gave Worthing's inevitably cursory number of Friday match-day travelling fans anything to cheer.

Worthing deteriorated back up to 20 turnovers but although Newcastle had 25, Worthing converted only 16 points from these, to Eagles' 20.

Thunder shot only 38% in two-pointers to the 62% of Newcastle, whose exceptional three-point marksmanship outshone Thunder's 47%-33%.

Senior American, centre Kadiri Richard summed it up: "We tried to go with a 3-2 zone defence but they came out so strong, they adjusted within a couple of minutes, got hot, and began to shoot really well.

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"We went to our man defence in the second half and most of us fulfilled our normal contributions by the end. But it's so tough to come back at Newcastle. They'd just won the league, and had their home cooking."

It was a new, developing team on a shoestring '”Thunder '” up against the best unit the BBL has produced this decade. Eagles inhabit and guard mountains. Thunder were climbing one. And too vulnerable.

EAGLES 102: *Smith 29pts (9-13 in 2s, 3-6 in 3s, 2-2 in FTs) 4rb 3ass 1blk 3stl, *Stewart 14pts (7-10 0-0 0-1) 11rb (5off 6def) 2ass, *Sullivan 14pts (6-8 0-1 2-2) 8rb 3ass, *Bridge 13pts (2-2 3-4 0-0) 3rb 2ass 2stl, Chapman 11pts (2-4 2-6 1-1) 3rb 4ass, *Jackson 11pts (2-6 1-2 4-4) 6ass 3stl, Flournoy 4pts 3rb 1blk 2ass, Defoe 4pts 5rb, Glen 1pt, Nielsen 1pt.

THUNDER 74: *Bratton 19pts (4-10 0-1 11-15) 4rb 2stl, *Cricelli 16pts (7-17 0-0 2-2) 8rb 3ass, Zabas 11pts (2-7 1-2 4-4) 2rb, *Prezzie-Blue 10pts (2-6 2-2 0-0), *Richard 9pts (4-4 0-0 1-5) 8rb 2ass 1blk 3ass, Brame 3pts (0-0 1-1 0-0), Midgley 2pts, *Makalainen 2pts (1-6 0-2 0-0), Ivanovskis 0pts (0-1 0-0 0-0), Hildreth 0pts. DNP: Mitchell, Marrast.

Quarters: 28-12 26-18 (54-30HT) 25-25 23-19

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BBL Play-offs, quarter-finals '“ other results: Sheffield Sharks 104, Milton Keynes Lions 93. Sunday: Glasgow Rocks 88, Leicester Riders 86; Cheshire Jets 79, Everton Tigers 94.

Play-offs semi-finals (two legs) - Friday (7.30pm): Everton v Newcastle; Sheffield v Glasgow. Saturday (7.30): Newcastle v Everton. Sunday (7): Glasgow v Sheffield.

Final at Birmingham NIA on Saturday, May 8, also with All-Star Game: GB v Rest of the World.


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