Big weekend for Leopards

PUBLISHED: 09:00 09 October 2015

Justin Hitchman in action for Essex Leopards against Reading Rockets (pic: Paul Phillips)

Justin Hitchman in action for Essex Leopards against Reading Rockets (pic: Paul Phillips)


Cats chasing success on two fronts

It’s a crunch weekend for Levett Essex Leopards as they face two must-win games in as many days.

Steve Ogunjimi’s team travel to Hemel Storm tomorrow (Saturday) looking for a victory to keep their National Trophy hopes alive before facing Barking & Dagenham Thunder in the National Cup a day later.

Hemel split their opening two Trophy games, losing at Worthing but winning at home against London Lituanica, and have reached the last 16 of the Cup with comfortable wins at lower division Cambridge Cats.

The Big Cats won all three meetings last season against a Hemel side who include their former captain Carl Josey, who helped Leopards win the Trophy in 2013 before leaving a few months later.

Sunday’s opposition made a winning start to Division Three on Saturday with a 72-67 victory at Barking Abbey Crusaders and won on the road in the first round of the Cup, 66-60 at Eastside Eagles.

Ogunjimi’s team will be up against another former Leopard as guard Marlan Henry – who helped them finish Division One runners-up in 2011 – provides experience for a young Thunder team.

The winner of tie has home-court advantage in the last 16 against Westminster Warriors.

Leopards came up short against Reading Rockets (90-82) in a double-overtime thriller at 90-82 against Reading Rockets, on Friday night.

The Big Cats missed six of their eight free-throws in the first period of overtime and hit just four of 12 foul shots across the two additional periods before tiring in final five minutes.

In a game that saw three technical fouls and an ejection for the stats man – possibly a first – the Big Cats produced a much better performance than in their last three games.

But now they must win their final two games in the National Trophy to stand a realistic chance of progressing to the quarter-final.

Ladi Brown led the way for the home side with 20 points, while Justin Hitchman continued his impressive debut season with the Big Cats as he added 19 points.

Captain Albert Margai chipped in with 12 points, while D’Montre Edwards led the Rockets with a game-high 28.

The visitors led 20-12 at the first break, thanks mainly to a late 7-0 run, but Leopards fought their way back into the game and closed out the first half with eight unanswered points to cut the deficit to 34-32 going into half-time.

Treys from Will Ashby and Margai saw Leopards take their first lead since the opening stages with four second-half minutes gone, and it was nip and tuck for the rest of the period as Rockets took a 50-49 lead into the final break.

Five Brown points helped the Big Cats take a 56-50 lead early in the fourth period and they looked like they had wrapped things up with just 3.5 seconds remaining as a pair of Brown free-throws made it 70-67.

But a timeout from the visitors set up a three-point play for former Leopard Dave Ajumobi who buried the ball to send the game into overtime.

It was a tale of missed free-throws in the first extra period and although Courtney Van Beest gave the hosts a 79-77 lead heading into the final 30 seconds, Edwards hit a pair at the charity stripe to force a second overtime.

Although Margai hit a trey to open the decisive period, the heavy minutes played by Leopards’ starting five showed as their struggles continued at the foul line, and Reading answered with a 6-1 run and never trailed again to retain their unbeaten record.

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