A tenacious second-half defensive display was the catalyst for a victorious Dragons revival.
Both teams headed into Saturday evening’s contest looking to eradicate 0-2 starts to the season.
Getting off to notoriously slow starts in the opening two games of the season, surprisingly, it was the Leopards who started much the better of the two teams this time around.
The Dragons Jermayne Laing opened the scoring for a much-changed Bradford starting five which consisted of Dave Walsh, Laing, Allie Fullah, Albert Margai, and Rafi Saipe.
Leopards talisman Hafeez Abdul came out the blocks red hot, knocking down his first three threes as the visitors opened up a 19-10 lead within the opening five minutes of the game.
By the time the buzzer had sounded for the end of the first quarter, the visitors had fired in six threes to stun the home faithful.
Rihards Šulcs provided a spark off the bench for the hosts, keeping the Dragons in touch with their electric counterparts. Scoring a quick four points and securing the first of five steals on the evening.
Despite, a positive end to the opening quarter, the Dragons went down by as many as 13 points just moments into the following period.
A change in fortunes for the hosts coincided with the introduction of Ricky Fetske for his first playing time of the game.
The arrival of the American spurred the Dragons defensively and in turn, Bradford went on a 10-point run of their own to reduce the deficit to two points (39-41).
A huge component of the surge was the sharpshooting of Walsh. The guard knocked down a three and was fouled on a three-point attempt the next offensive trip down the floor, swishing all three of the resulting free throws.
The Dragons were firmly back in the game, but it was the Leopards who led at the half. Heading into the locker room up 48-43.
Third quarters have become something of a specialty in the opening games of the season for the Bradford Dragons, and this game would prove to be no different. Outscoring the Big Cats 24-17 in the penultimate quarter, which was a back and forth affair with neither team able to put clear daylight between the other. It was the final two minutes of the period that proved to be game-changing for the hosts.
A 6-0 run to end the quarter was indicative of the Dragons doggedness. Lockdown defensive sets were the key, sparking a couple of huge offensive plays to close the quarter.
Firstly, an explosive Fetske put back slam got the home fans off their seats to red
uce the arrears to 64-65. That was followed by a great defensive stop, concluding in Saipe racing into the opposing half on a solo fast break and dishing the ball off to the Dragons marksman, who was all alone in the right-hand corner.
You didn’t expect any other outcome as Walsh fired in his fourth three of the evening, handing Bradford a first lead (67-65) since the opening minutes of the game.
The run had the Dragons buoyed heading into the final quarter of play. A Fetske layup had Bradford up by four as they threatened to take control of proceedings early on in the fourth.
That run was quickly negated though as the Big Cats refused to lie down easily. Fighting back into the lead courtesy of a step back mid-range jumper from Prince Lartey and a fifth three of the evening from Abdul.
However, this would be the moment the Dragons stepped it up a gear. Down 72-73 with just over six minutes to play, a 5-0 run from the teams most featured player Rafi Saipe, gave Bradford a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Fetske knocked down back to back buckets in the final two minutes to confirm an 86-77 victory for the Bradford Dragons.
Excellent team defence made all the difference for the hosts, as they recorded 11 steals on the evening for a 24-16 advantage on points from turnovers.
Coach Mellor commented, “We got off to a poor start giving up 29 in the first and they came out firing from deep. We won the next three quarters and we improved defensively as the game progressed, but we’ve still lots to improve on.”
The Official University of Bradford Player of the Game went to Dave Walsh who recorded 20 points and 4 rebounds, going an impressive 5-7 from threes.
Captain Ricky Fetske recorded 15 points and 9 rebounds in just 17 minutes of action. Whilst fellow Dragons stalwart Rihards Šulcs stuffed the stats sheet with an impressive 13 points, 9 assists, 6 rebounds and 5 steals performance.
Hafeez Abdul led all scorers with 28 points for the Essex and Herts Leopards.
Next up for the Dragons is a home clash against the Loughborough Riders on Saturday, October 19 at 6.15pm.
Elsewhere, it was a mixed bag of results for the Dragons youth teams in Junior NBL action this weekend. The under 16s dispatched the Chesterfield Flights 83-44, while the under 18s fell to a tough 85-48 defeat against Leeds City Gold.
Photographs © Alex Daniel Photography
Match Report by Tom Lamming (Student Press Officer).