Worcester Wolves have fallen agonisingly short of reaching the British Basketball League Playoff Final at London’s O2 Arena.
A pulsating 111-94 overtime win over Newcastle Eagles on Friday means that Wolves lose out by just 197-199 on aggregate as they roared back from a hugely-disappointing 86-105 first-leg defeat in the North East on Wednesday.
By half-time Worcester led 54-45, thereby pulling back nearly half of the away-leg deficit. Approaching the final minutes the deficit had been fully erased with Wolves on the verge of victory before Eagles called on the experience that has taken them to numerous championship finals to force overtime.
In the dying seconds of the extra period the combatants were once more tied on aggregate before Newcastle ultimately drew last blood.
With head coach Paul James unavailable, assistant coaches Alex Radu and Danny McGhee were joined on the side-lines by the University of Worcester’s basketball academic from Leon, Alejandro Vaquero.
Radu spoke for the coaching trio in applauding the plucky efforts of the Wolves players: “What a magnificent display. Everyone was really switched on for what we needed to do in order to overturn a massive 19-point deficit against a Newcastle side that have been one of the league’s premier teams for many years.
“We showed what can be done by sticking to a game plan. But for a tiny bit more concentration we would have pulled off a tremendous comeback.
“Everyone is obviously disappointed but, ultimately, we paid the price for letting ourselves down in the first leg.”
As fans entered the University of Worcester Arena they were handed 3-point cards to brandish whenever Wolves connected from long-distance. Within the first twenty seconds a capacity crowd were already waving the cards high in the air as Danny Huffor set the scoreboard ticking.
Maurice Walker soon set up camp close to the Newcastle basket to push his way to a quartet of scores. His fifth score moved Wolves 33-32 ahead as the second quarter began.
Forward Scott Martin was the early feature for the visitors with an impressive 16 first-quarter points, but swarming defence would prevent him from adding to that total before half-time.
As the interval buzzer sounded ex-Worcester man Orlan Jackman found himself standing at the free-throw line being noisily heckled by his former supporters into missing a double of foul shots.
Alex Navajas opened the second half scoring and then blocked a Newcastle attempt. Trevor Setty and Jermel Kennedy settled into an offensive groove as Wolves’ fans began to believe it was possible that the big first-leg deficit could be erased.
Just before the third period expired Ashton Khan lofted up a three-pointer as he fell backwards. When the ball dropped through the hoop to extend the lead to 83-69, the home crowd leapt to their feet in celebration.
By midway through the last quarter Worcester had finally erased their arrears after another Walker score put matters at 94-74. At 44 seconds to go a Rahmon Fletcher basket levelled the aggregate scores at 103-84. Both sides missed chances to settle the tie, leading to five minutes of added time.
It would take nearly three minutes for Wolves to add to their total. In the meantime, Eagles began to edge away. But Marek Klassen’s only score from the field over the whole evening once more brought the sides together at 111-92.
With just four seconds remaining, Huffor was whistled for a foul on Fletcher. The Newcastle guard held his nerve to convert both resultant free throws.
Speedster Khan was the player handed the task of racing from one end of the court to the other. As he drew near the Eagles baseline he was forced to heave up an off-balance shot, surrounded by defenders. When it fell short, Wolves’ dogged efforts to atone for their first-leg failings were finally over.
Walker signed off his season with an imposing return of 26 points and 17 rebounds. Kennedy hit 19 points, followed by Setty and Khan tallying 16 and 15 points respectively. Huffor and Navajas rounded out the double-figure scorers with 11 points apiece. Fletcher and Martin both tallied 28 points to lead the way for Eagles.
“It’s been a strange season,” summarised Radu. “After the first half of the year we were not even in a playoff position. After that it was a totally different story. We got something out of the season to put ourselves just one basket away from reaching the Playoff Final.”
“Tonight proved that Worcester has the best venue in the country and that Worcester has the best fans in the country. On behalf of everyone I want to say sorry that we couldn’t quite do enough to reward our supporters with a trip to the Final.”