Big Cats coach Youngblood wants a Final Four flourish

The Leopards celebrate with the NBL Div 1 trophy (pic: Paul Phillips)

The Leopards celebrate with the NBL Div 1 trophy (pic: Paul Phillips) - Credit: Archant

Essex Leopards chasing play-off glory in Sheffield this weekend

Essex Leopards coach Robert Youngbloods (pic: Paul Phillips).

Essex Leopards coach Robert Youngbloods (pic: Paul Phillips). - Credit: Archant

Essex Leopards coach Robert Youngblood is looking to get his hands on the trophy that has eluded him throughout his career this weekend in Sheffield.

Big Cats make the trip up north to compete in the play-off Final Four event, and they are looking to finish the season in style.

After the game Albert Margai was presented with the NBL Div 1 trophy after the Dragons win (pic: Paul Phillips)

After the game Albert Margai was presented with the NBL Div 1 trophy after the Dragons win (pic: Paul Phillips) - Credit: Archant

After winning the NBL Division One title, Youngblood has now targeted winning the play-offs.

Leopards will play Kent Crusaders in the semi-final tomorrow (Saturday) before potentially facing either Manchester Magic or Derby Trailblazers in the final the following day (Sunday).

Captain Albert Margai tries to dribble past two Dragons defenders (pic: Paul Phillips)

Captain Albert Margai tries to dribble past two Dragons defenders (pic: Paul Phillips) - Credit: Archant

And although the Big Cats coach has reached the Final Four on previous occasions, he has never guided his team to the final.

“I’m really pleased to be taking Leopards to the Final Four for a third straight season and I’m looking forward to it,” said Youngblood.

Dave Ajumobi shoots under pressure against Dragons (pic: Paul Phillips)

Dave Ajumobi shoots under pressure against Dragons (pic: Paul Phillips) - Credit: Archant

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“I didn’t get the chance to coach in the semi-final last year, due to suspension, and it wasn’t the happiest weekend I’ve ever had.

“I feel like I need to make amends, we’ve lost on the Saturday in each of the last two years and I don’t want to repeat that.”

The 45-year-old saw his team reach the Final Four following a close fought victory against Bradford Dragons.

But he has also found time to watch this weekend’s opponents Kent and Youngblood knows what to expect from Crusaders and is certain they will not give up without a fight.

He added: “I scouted their play-off game against Reading Rockets, and they have a bunch of young guys who don’t give up.

“They were 12 down in that match with seven minutes remaining, but they kept fighting to take the win.

“Kent did that against us in February when we kind of threw the game away with too many turnovers in the last minute of regulation time when we had been leading all game.

“We have to out-rebound them and play the defence that we’re known for. We’ve been holding teams to under 60 points and that’s been key to our success.”

Big Cats will expect a battle with Crusaders on Saturday, though, and will be aware that the Kent side have been their bogey team.

They have won three of the four meetings - with home court advantage key in all four games.

Kent are coached by former Leopards’ player and assistant coach Lloyd Gardner.

They have two players that have represented Big Cats in the past. John Steel and Duane Orija were part of the Leopards side that won the treble in 2012.

Big Cats were kept on course for a double by earning a six-point triumph against Bradford last weekend at a packed out and noisy Brentwood Centre.

Leopards were ahead at the first break, 18-15, before Dragons roared back and reduced the difference to one point going into half time.

Bradford took great confidence from that and impressed in the third period as well to come in leading 60-57.

With four minutes remaining they were still beating Big Cats before Dave Ajumobi sunk a three-pointer and Leopards never looked back from that point.

Courtney Van Beest made it a three-point game with a jump short before Ajumobi increased the winning margin to five with just two minutes left on the clock.

Bradford did make it a two-point match with 20 seconds left, but fittingly captain Albert Margai sunk a couple of free throws to seal Leopards 82-76 success.

It was a day of celebration for Big Cats as they were presented with the NBL Division One title at the end of the match by Brentwood’s long-standing MP Eric Pickles.

But Youngblood’s team will now switch their focus to beating Crusaders tomorrow, and then sealing play-off glory the following day to give Leopards coach the full set of trophies.