Worcester Wolves laid down an early marker for what they could achieve this year, both on and off the basketball court, as they defeated the reigning British Basketball League champions Leicester Riders 73-61, at a sold-out University of Worcester Arena on Friday.
Both sides came into the evening on the back of wide-margin opening day victories, but soon found themselves embroiled in a much tighter contest where neither team was able to pull clear of the other until the later stages. Urged on by over 1500 fans at their sparkling new venue, Wolves finally made home advantage pay as they edged clear of their opponents on the back of a strong defensive display.
With the start of the game delayed due to the large throng of spectators eager to witness the action, Leicester’s Great Britain captain Andrew Sullivan straightaway threatened to dampen the party atmosphere when rising high to dunk the ball home from his side’s opening possession.
The big summer story for the Wolves was point guard Zaire Taylor turning down the chance to re-join last season’s treble-winning Riders and instead making his way to Worcester. It was fitting that Taylor should be the first person to reply to Sullivan’s score, floating in a long-range shot and then celebrating by throwing a swaggering stare at the large contingent of visiting Leicester fans.
The next eight points went the way of the Wolves, forcing Riders’ coach Rob Paternostro to call a steadying time out with his side trailing 2-11 after just three minutes had elapsed. At the end of the first quarter a more even score had prevailed, but with Worcester still in front at 18-13.
By midway through the second period matters had got closer still after a basket from Sullivan pulled his team within a point at 24-23. Shortly afterwards, a three-pointer from Leicester guard Jay Couisnard was enough to edge his team ahead and leave Wolves’ coach Paul James as the man now requesting a break in the action.
With the hosts trailing 29-34 in the last minute of the half, their new signing 21 year-old Disraeli Lufadeju thrilled the crowd with an improbable shot attempt from the corner of the court which bounced off the backboard before dropping through the hoop.
A smooth turnaround shot from small forward Jamal Williams opened the second half and levelled the night at 34-34. After a quick reply from Leicester’s bustling centre Rashad Hassan, Williams was on hand to tip in a Taylor miss, once more equalling the scores.
Consecutive triples from guard Caylin Raftopoulos and centre Will Creekmore opened a 44-39 gap for the Wolves. As the third quarter wound down and with his side ahead at 51-45, Creekmore was whistled for a technical foul after showing dissent to the match officials. Riders sank one of the two awarded free throws and their young English guard Connor Washington then hit home a triple from the turnover in possession, bringing the contest to 51-49.
At just five minutes to go in the match, the score still held close at 59-55. From there however, a combination of stifling defensive play and a breakout on offense was enough to pull the Wolves clear of their opponents. Five points in a row from Taylor took matters to 64-57. After a score from his backcourt partner Alex Owumi, Taylor then produced an imperious dribble and lay-up around a flailing Washington, to open up the night at 68-57.
Forward Stefan Djukic rounded out the Wolves’ scoring with a two-handed slam, before Williams once more showed his defensive tenacity when blocking a desperation shot attempt from Washington.
Wolves’ coach Paul James was delighted with the 73-61 victory, and with the turnout from the Worcester public, saying: “I’m thrilled with how we performed, especially defensively, holding back last year’s champions. I could see the staff at the arena were pulling out extra seating just before the tip off, and the fans created a fantastic atmosphere. The way everything turned out was a fitting start for the Wolves in a great new venue.”