Teesside Lions Crowned National Champions
Teesside Lions are the Division Three National Playoff Champions following a tense and gritty 9pt win over the Worcester Wolves in Manchester.
Adding the National Final Championship to their Division Three North title has rounded off a great season for the Teesside outfit and their achievement should not be understated. They have won arguably the strongest division, then beat fourth highest seed Bristol in the quarter final of the playoffs, followed by a semi-final win over number one seed St Helens and finally victory over third seed Worcester Wolves in the final, meaning the fifth seeded Lions beat three out of four of the higher ranked teams across the country to be crowned the National Champions.
The game was predominantly controlled by Lions, but Coach Steutel and his players couldn’t extend their 3-5pt cushion for the majority of the game. Lions started strong and led the first quarter 17-11; a 3 pointer from Wilfred Santhe in the last 30 seconds; saving the Wolves blushes.
Teesside remained composed and patient on offence and this held them in good stead down the stretch, despite the solo heroics of Wolves player of the season Ian Vivero Rodriguez who was hitting incredibly difficult shots under the smothering presence of Lions’ Ross Wilson.
Wilson, known for his athleticism and crowd-pleasing dunking ability, is also an elite defender who restricted the impact of Rodriguez leading to the Wolves star becoming increasingly frustrated as the game progressed.
It was, however, admirable; how he manged to produce some of his shots and this had a positive effect on his team, as despite being down, they had a player capable of making magic happen.
In the sixth minute of the second quarter Ross Wilson elevated for the dunk of the game. An electric moment which brought the Teesside fans to their feet in what was a low scoring period for the Lions. Wilson, who struggled in the semi-final, was alive and kicking in the final at both ends of the court.
At half time Lions led by 5pts 29-24, and while Coach Steutel was pleased with the defensive remit, he was keen to see improvements on offence.
The third quarter was not a great improvement and Lions lost the period 14-16. Wolves took a rare lead in the third minute as talented forward Martei Baltineua made a lovely hook shot to take the score to 31-32.
It was a critical stage of the game as Lions couldn’t shake the Wolves’ claws in their back heel and with the lead now lost it was important that the momentum didn’t swing. On cue, Teesside star and hero of the semi final Gregor Gray, relatively quiet thus far, stepped up with a laser guided 3-pointer to regain the lead just 15 seconds later.
With the action and direction of game on a knife edge, Carl Alexander provided the spark for Lions as he produced a two-minute injection of rebounds, steals, assists, a big 3-pointer, and an incredible coast to coast lay-up, weaving past two defenders for the off-balance highlight finish.
Despite the determined efforts of the Wolves, Lions would still lead 43-40, heading into the final quarter.
If the first three pulsating quarters were not enough, the fans were in for a treat as both sides traded blows in the early stages. Sergi Sanchez made his first and only basket of the game. This was then countered by Lions captain Theo Turner who muscled his way to the basket for a strong finish.
The Lions 7-foot captain had a difficult game under the constant pressure of double teams and heavy contact, but such is the strength in depth of the Lions, Coach Steutel was able to call upon Siman Stewart to provide an alternative solution while the Wolves were heavily focussed on Turner.
Stewart was instrumental in the final stages of the quarter as was Jack Beresford who provided a defensive masterclass at crucial stages of the game to ensure Lions would break free from the 55-55 deadlock with less than three minutes remaining to outscore the Wolves 10-1 and secure victory at the final buzzer to the ecstatic and raucous cheers of the Teesside fans.
Close to 400 fans travelled to Manchester from Teesside, out-numbering the Wolves fans by around 250 and the energy and passion of the Teesside supporters was a constant theme remarked on by the broadcasting commentators Mark Halewood and John Hobbs who were very complimentary of the fans and Teesside Lions in general.
The game MVP was awarded to Ross Wilson who was sublime at both ends of the floor, finishing with 14pts, 9 rebounds & 4 assists, 3 steals & 2 blocks. As humble as ever, Wilson played down his accolades stating:
“We are a close-knit team. We play hard for each other and have played hard all season. We have enjoyed different players stepping up throughout the season and this shows the depth we have as a team. In the semi-final I couldn’t get myself in the game but today I was able to so it’s pleasing to play my part and help the team win.”
Lions: Wilson R 14, Stewart 13, Alexander 10, Hughes 10
Wolves: Rodriguez 23, Baltineua 10
To watch full game: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1bcKvkl-cQ&t=7502s
Highlights video for use by media: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bfB_ydzhAI