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Basketball: Essex Leopards face crucial weekend in National League Division One survival bid

PUBLISHED: 10:00 15 March 2017

Dougie Bennett in action for Essex Leopards against Leicester Warriors (pic: Paul Phillips)

Dougie Bennett in action for Essex Leopards against Leicester Warriors (pic: Paul Phillips)

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Big Cats know two wins are a must if they want to avoid the drop

It’s now or never for Essex Leopards to remain in National League Division One as they face a pair of games on the road over the weekend.

The Big Cats travel to UEL Sports Dock on Saturday (5pm) to face London Lituanica before moving on to Lancashire Spinners on Sunday afternoon (3pm).

Following Sunday’s 68-66 home defeat against Leicester Warriors, Leopards are staring relegation in the face and go into their final three games - all away from home - knowing that they may need to win them all to avoid the drop.

The Lithuanians have struggled with player availability, taking only five players to Solent last weekend.

They managed to bring a full team to Harlow Leisurezone in December and they finished strongly to win 74-70.

The sides also met in the National Trophy group stage, with the Big Cats winning a thriller 68-67.

History may be on Leopards’ side as they will look to continue a run of games between the clubs that has seen the visiting team take the victory in the eight match-ups between them.

Sunday’s game is absolutely crucial as Leopards face a team who are two places above them in 11th place, having won six of their 22 games.

Essex had another one-point win against Spinners when they met at Brentwood just before Christmas, and a win at Mysercough College would give them the head-to-head tiebreaker if they finished level with the Lancashire side.

While they’ve won their share of close games, Sunday’s loss against Leicester proved to be a heartbreaker as a key call with 41 seconds on the clock saw AJ Roberts foul out on an offensive call, and the visitors held on for the win.

In front of another big crowd at Brentwood, the home side trailed 16-14 at the first break, and although a Roberts trey put his side up by one at the start of the second period, the visitors reeled off 11 straight points to take a commanding 29-17 lead.

A trey from Caleb Tabiner launched a 14-1 run and seven straight points from Roberts sent his side into the locker room with a 31-30 half-time lead.

Justin Hitchman opened the second half scoring before a four minute drought saw Warriors score 12 unanswered points to open a nine-point lead.

Perry Lawson ended the run with a trey, and with Dougie Bennett scoring five points and Roberts also scoring from long range as Leopards closed out the period on a 15-7 run to only trail 49-48 at the final break.

A Shaq Lewis free-throw saw Leopards regain the lead early in the fourth period and Hitchman again take a one-point lead going into the last minute before Warriors finished strongly, and with Roberts fouling out, Lawson’s late trey was too late to prevent an 11th straight loss.

Roberts led his side with 18 points, 12 rebounds and six assists, while Lewis had 12 points and four boards in probably his best performance of the season.

Bennett added 11 points while Hayes finished with ten points and seven rebounds.

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