Teesside Into Final After St Helens Triumph
Teesside Lions are through to the 2022 Playoff Final following a thrilling semi-final victory over the number one seed and previously unbeaten St Helens.
It is the first national final appearance for the club to cap an historic season for the players, staff and their fans adding to the D3 North League Title secured last month and promotion to Division Two awaiting.
In what many were saying should have been the final; St Helens were ranked number one in the country following a 20-game unbeaten run as Champions in the North West League, and a 22 game unbeaten run with their playoff victories over Liverpool by 11pts and a 30pt win over Tees Valley Mohawks.
The remarkable achievement by highly rated Coach Dominic O’Neil came to an end in the 23rd game in what was an incredible advert for British basketball.
Teesside, who have been attracting crowds of 700 at Eston Arena travelled with nearly 100 to Merseyside to produce an electric atmosphere as both teams and both sets of fans battled for supremacy.
St Helens started the better as they amassed a 13pt lead. The Lions fans not happy with some of the referees calls as Lions star Ross Wilson picked up three fouls in the first quarter; which for one of the league’s best defenders was uncharacteristic and unsettling for the team.
While seemingly stunned, the Lions were still producing strong plays with Theo Turner dominating the paint and an early ‘And 1’ by Jack Beresford providing hope for the visitors. Turner was the epitome of cool as he continued to endure heavy contact around the basket. The 7 foot captain proving not only his nerve but his dominance as his aura echoed ‘Too Big’ to finish the first quarter with 7pts.
The home team however were rampant as the league’s leading scorer in Connor Murtagh hit 6pts but it was the team as a whole peppering the Lions as Disraeli Lufadeju hit 6pts, Luke Gosney hit 7pts and Daniel Miller caught fire for 11pts.
Lions showed remarkable resilience to claw their way back, although at the end of the quarter there was still a mountain to climb as they trailed 29-19.
The second quarter was an awakening to the delight of the Teesside fans as Lions outscored the hosts 27-14 to take a 3pt lead at half time; 33-36.
With star quality across the floor, fans were spoiled for choice. St Helens boast a squad full of talent and include four former BBL players, but Coach Steutel was proving his worth as he managed to conjure an incredible response not only on offence with the cool hand of Gregor Gray hitting his third 3-pointer, Jack Wilson pulling strings as he controlled affairs, despite a cut to his elbow, and Turner adding another 7pts including his second ‘And 1’ play.
It was the defence however that was most impressive as Lions held the BBL quartet to just 11pts. Murtagh who averaged 32pts per game in the regular season was restricted to just 3pts.
The second half was filled with even more drama as the game produced everything to keep the fans on the edge of their seats. The third quarter witnessed a scoring drought from as both teams struggled to develop rhythm and went around six minutes without scoring. With Teesside scoring just two baskets via Turner and Siman Stewart, St Helens took back the lead 55-50 at the end of the third period.
The final quarter saw Carl Alexander step up to hero level as he worked tirelessly for the Teesside cause. The 6’1 guard controlled the ball under immense pressure, received a big blow to the eye after a collision and continued to power through with big plays at both ends of the court. In the final quarter he hit two deep 3’s to not only give the Lions the lead but importantly deliver a momentum swing and provide a sense of security that favoured Teesside.
St Helens however were not going down without a fight and despite being down by 3 points and seemingly heading out, they moved the ball desperately to find Murtagh for a buzzer beating 3-pointer to take the game into overtime to the elation of the home fans.
There was a sense that Teesside were more in control and in overtime, despite just a 2pt separation, the visitors produced important plays when required, while St Helens looked more and more dejected at the prospect of losing their unbeaten run and ending their playoff final dreams. Gregor Gray hit two 3’s in overtime, but it was the grit and determination from Carl Alexander that amplified the team collective desire to do what is required to win the game.
The MVP was the most difficult decision of the season with so many players performing above and beyond. Jack Wilson and Jack Beresford worked tirelessly to deny key opposition players the ball, Siman Stewart and Matt Hughes were spark plugs at just the right times, Theo Turner dominated the paint at both ends of the floor finishing with 20pts & 18reb, Gregor Gray was a light in a dark tunnel as he hit 19pts including five 3’s and two clutch free throws but even these five heroes were slightly eclipsed by the heroic efforts of Carl Alexander who hit 10pts but delivered so much more to earn the game MVP.
St Helens: Murtagh 21, Gosney 18, Miller 16, Lufandeju 14
Lions: Turner 20, Gray 19, Stewart 13, Alexander 10
Lions will now travel to the National Basketball Performance Arena in Manchester on Saturday 23rd April to play former BBL team Worcester Wolves in the coveted Playoff Final to decide which team is the best D3 team in the entire country.
Tickets are on sale via Basketball England at just £5 adults and £2.50 U18/OAP and the club are providing coach transport for just £15 for what should be an exciting, atmospheric and memorable day that will etched into the club’s history.
For more information or to book transport with the club, email Sales@TeessideLions.com