BBL Hoops with Dan Routledge
As someone who loves BBL history, everything about Sunday’s Play-Off Final points towards an underdog win.
The only trouble is, whilst the bookmakers will undoubtedly have Leicester as favourites heading into The O2 showdown [and rightly so], I really don’t see Sheffield as an underdog.
To me, they have probably given Leicester more problems this season than any other team, so if the Sharks are standing their holding aloft the silver and gold basketball, I personally won’t consider that to be a surprise result.
Before the present, let’s look at the past and that is where we find two true shocks. In fact, you could make an argument that the Riders-Sharks finals have produced two of the biggest surprises in BBL Finals history.
Firstly at Wembley Arena in 2001 when Leicester became the first de facto eighth seed to win the Play-Offs. A team that couldn’t even win half its league games, roared through the post-season knocking off all the big teams en-route to a Final with the Sharks.
Riders lost Karl Brown to a knee ligament injury in the first quarter, but somehow with essentially five players, they overcame a large deficit in the second half to stun Sheffield 84-75.
Three years ago, the boot was on the other foot. Riders turned up to the Emirates Arena with the BBL Cup already in the bag, the title in their sights and having beaten the Sharks by 16, 20, 30 and 21 points already that season.
But BJ Holmes didn’t read the script and his phenomenal three-point shooting helped Sheffield build a 65-53 lead with seven minutes to play. Zaire Taylor did haul Leicester back in the game and Jorge Calvo tied things up with a three-pointer with a minute to go. Holmes, though, would have the final say with two foul shots and Sheffield pulled off the huge upset.
The other thing that points to an underdog victory is first versus third is the second most common Play-Off Final match-up, but only once have the league winners come out on top.
Of course that doesn’t impact on the here and now, so I looked back at the meetings between these sides this season and there is a lot to see – given they’ve met six times in every competition.
First off, I throw out that last meeting as Sharks were men down, including Jerrold Brooks, and Riders were going for the title. I read absolutely nothing into the 77-56 Leicester win.
Everything else has been uber-tight between these sides, even the first meeting. The final score was 77-96 in favour of Leicester, but it was a three-point game with 7:30 left, Riders just caught fire from the three-point line down the stretch, making their last seven long range efforts.
The other meetings have been Riders by two, Sheffield by six, a draw and Riders by four. That’s the sort of game I’m expecting again this weekend. The common theme seems to be, Leicester come out hot, get a nice lead, Sheffield claw it back and someone makes a big play or two down the stretch.
The key match-up for me is Jerrold Brooks versus the Riders’ backcourt. Obviously Leicester have a bunch of different guys they can throw at him, but he seems to up his game against them.
Looking back at the numbers, in the five games he’s played against the Riders, Brooks is averaging 23 points per game. That’s 5.4ppg more than in the other 31 games he’s played in all competitions.
His shooting percentage is 6ppg up, his three-point shooting rises by 9ppg to 42%, his assists go up and his turnovers go down. Clearly there is something about playing the Riders that Jerrold Brooks likes.
If Sheffield win, I’d expect it will be because his performance is in the MVP discussions and if they don’t, I suspect we’ll be lauding the defensive job of whoever matches up with him.
I see nothing other than a close game in this one, it’s just about who can make the big shot or key stop when the pressure is at its most intense.
You can listen to Dan calling the action live on the BBC red button and BBC Sport online on Sunday. The Molten BBL Play-Off Final tips at 3.30pm and is followed at 6pm by the Molten WBBL Play-Off Final.
One of the most respected and highly regarded contributors to the sport, Daniel ‘The Voice’ Routledge has been writing and commentating on British Basketball for over 20 years. He has commentated on the BBL, World Championships, European Championships, Asian Championships, NBA, Paralympics, Euroleague and EuroCup. He is writing a monthly column during the 2015-16 season for www.bbl.org.uk and possessing an arguably unrivalled knowledge of the league both past and present, make sure you follow him @dan_routledge.
Voynova still pinching herself on eve of Molten Finals
When Diana Voynova released the ball onto the backboard last Sunday in the dying seconds of a monumentally epic overtime Semi-Final against Westfield Health Sheffield Hatters, the bulk of those present inside Sport Central gasped in anticipation.
It proved to be a historical basket as it dropped gleefully through the net and sparked scenes of jubilation for Team Northumbria who sealed a pulsating 90-88 success and punched a ticket to their first ever showpiece WBBL Final.
Even for a player for the Bulgarian’s experience, it was hard to grasp the magnitude of the accomplishment which her game winning score had recorded.
“It was a crazy game to be a part of and we have to give credit to Sheffield for that too,” mused Voynova ahead of tomorrow’s Molten WBBL Play-Off Final against Nottingham Wildcats.
“Hatters are such a good club and they came and fought so hard – they just wouldn’t let it go. But I think we just had that added depth in the end.
“It’s hard to explain the excitement and pride in what we have achieved off the back of that result, because it’s the biggest result the club has ever had – or at least so far.”
It’s been a roller-coaster campaign for Voynova and Co. Had they not hit an injury crisis during the middle of the season which caused a wobble in their WBBL Championship challenge, they might have been gunning for a silverware double.
Yet while they missed out on top spot and had to settle for a best ever second place finish, Voynova is thrilled with the way Team Northumbria responded to the adversity they endured.
She said, “We knew starting the season we might have some ups and downs, with me as an example, because I knew from the beginning I was going to have to have surgery and miss some of it.
“It’s never good timing to get injuries, but it was hard to imagine that when I eventually did go for my surgery, we would also lose Ta’Yani Clark and Rachael Bland.
“I was so happy that we really stuck together in those difficult moments and different players stepped up.
“It would have been easy to have given up, to have folded and felt sorry for ourselves and written the rest of the season off because of our bad luck.
“But we didn’t, and because of the fight and determination we have had, it means that we can look forward to an incredible experience at The 02.
“It also makes those dark moments when you are injured and in rehabilitation worthwhile when you can come back to something like this,” added Voynova.
Having played in the NCAA with Duquesne and also EuroCup Women, the centre is accustomed to big games on a big stage. Although even for Voynova, playing Wildcats in front of a worldwide audience promises something particularly special – and, she is determined to soak it all up and maximise the opportunity to shine.
“It felt a little surreal at first when we beat Sheffield and realised that we would be playing in this huge game, in an incredible arena and on television,” she stated.
“For the more experienced players like myself, I think we will be able to relax and enjoy it much more than some of the younger girls.
“They might have to control their emotions and deal with the atmosphere and playing in front of so many people.
“It will be a crazy but good environment to play in and we accept that Nottingham are older than us and favourites.”
“But we are just going to play hard, see how things fall and I really want to make sure that I don’t let the occasion pass me by.”
The Molten WBBL Play-Off Final will be available on the BBC red button and via BBC Sport online at 6pm and will follow on from the Molten BBL Play-Off Final at 3.30pm.