Lancing-based Bears included a number of former Thunder players and led for much of a passionate encounter in front of a packed crowd at Worthing Leisure Centre.
Bears were up by 16 in the third quarter and still led by ten points heading into the final stanza. After Bear’s Dominic Baker limped off with an ankle injury and Bud Johnston fouled out, Thunder quickly opened up a 70-64 lead with just over two and a half minutes remaining. However, Bears fought back and a three-pointer from former Thunder captain James Brame gave Bears a 74-71 lead with just over a minute to go.
The score remained the same until Thunder’s Brendan Okornkwo stole the ball off Hank Rivers and scored with 25 seconds to go. Okoronkwo then quickly regained possession again off Joe Carter and Lyonell Gaines sank the winning basket as Bears did not manage to get a shot off in time.
Thunder coach Daniel Hildreth paid tribute to two divisions lower Bears and hopes there will be a healthy rivalry between the two clubs in years to come.
He said: “In the first half we were a step slow but one of the things I kept saying to the guys was it’s a 40 minute game and we only need to be leading when the buzzer goes off.
“My hat goes off to Sussex Bears. We all know that’s not a Division 3 roster and that’s as good as a Division 1 roster and they would probably be a mid-table team in our division.
“Hopefully this is the start of a Sussex rivalry and it should be. These guys will be in Division 2 next year and they’re going to work their way up and that’s what Sussex needs.
“We want a local rivalry. There’s no hard feelings, people are either mad because they lost or happy that we won. Either way round, we’re all good friends and will have a drink afterwards and talk about it.
“I know this is going to hurt them, of course it is and I don’t want to patronise them in any way but they were a credit to themselves and I feel we probably got away with it, rather than deserving it, if I’m honest.”
Bears stopped Gaines from scoring in the first quarter but Thunder’s American finished as the game’s top scorer with 27 points. Jack Sunderland added 14 for the hosts and Josh Brown sank 13.
Darren Mason led Bears with 18 points, Tomas Seduikis and Rivers both scored 16 and Bud Johnston hit 14.
Bears captain Brame said: “It hurts to lose but we can hold our heads high. It was a great advert for Sussex basketball and a great advert for Sussex Bears as well.
“We had a three-point lead but it was a very frantic last minute and a couple of calls maybe went against us.
“It could have been a fairytale for us but it just wasn’t to be.
“All of our players did a great job and proved we can still play at that level. It’s painful to lose but hats off to Thunder. That’s what can happen in basketball.
“You think of what ifs and if Bud hadn’t fouled out and Dom hadn’t got injured, I think we win.
“But it’s been a good three years for the Bears. We’re building a fan base but we had great numbers supporting us on Saturday and we just want to keep building as a club.”
Thunder’s Sunderland added: “Emotions got the better of both teams throughout the game and it could have gone either way.
“We’ve all grown up playing on the same team but one team had to lose today and luckily for us it was them – but it could have easily been us.
“I wish them all the best for the rest of the season and I think we’ll be in Division 1 together soon.”
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