Travelling to face the Thames Valley Cavaliers on Matchday 1 of the 2019/20 NBL Division 1 campaign, last season’s beaten Playoff Semi-Finalists proved to be a stern test of the Dragons early-season credentials, in a clash that went down to the wire.
The visitors opened up with a new-look starting five of Rafi Saipe, Jermayne Laing, Rihards Šulcs, Ricky Fetske, and experienced off-season addition Albert Margai.
The Cavaliers were quickest out of the blocks and got the scoring underway with a five-point run from talisman Martelle Mclemore.
Bradford responded well with two nifty lay-ups from long-time stalwart Šulcs, and a mid-range jump shot from Fetske, now in his sixth season with the Dragons, put the visitors in the ascendency for the first time
With Mclemore leading from the front with 14 first-quarter points, the Cavaliers broke into a 15-point lead as the first-quarter came to a close.
Down 28-13 heading into the second-quarter, the Dragons needed a response and quick. However, it was the hosts who built on their lead as it ballooned to 17 with 5:26 left in the quarter, but Bradford responded emphatically the rest of the way.
The visitors went on a 20-8 run in the final five minutes of the half, as they fought their way back into the game. Outscoring the Cavaliers 27-20 in the second-quarter, Dragons’ headed into the locker room down 45-40 at the interval.
The third-quarter was a much tighter affair with both teams going bucket for bucket, as neither team led by more than nine points.
Down 58-52, the Dragons surged to end the third-quarter 62-60 in the lead. With a 10-2 run made entirely from the Bradford bench.
New recruit Dave Walsh got the run underway with a three. That was quickly followed by an emphatic dunk from Allie Fullah and by the time Andres Lycoudis converted a free-throw line pull-up jump shot, the Cavaliers lead had been slashed to 60-59.
With the shot clock turned off and the game clock winding down, Thames Valley’s Blayne Freckleton launched the ball from the sideline into the Dragons half hoping for a miracle play by a teammate, but the unthinkable happened.
Lycoudis found the ball in his grasps and heaved the ball from inside his half to beat the buzzer, giving the Dragons an unlikely lead heading into the final quarter. Ultimately, it was Bradford’s first lead since the opening minutes of the game.
In the opening moments of the final period, the visitors pushed out the lead to a team-high seven points courtesy of a deep step-back Margai three and four points from Šulcs.
In a gritty period that was back and forth from start to finish, the smallest of margins was all that separated the Dragons from an opening day win.
Freckleton knocked down a clutch three with the shot clock expiring to put Thames Valleyfive points to the good. Fetske responded immediately with a converted and one opportunity to reduce the arrears to 80-78.
With less than a minute to go, the Dragons failed to box out Hakeem Sylla, who grabbed his tenth and most important rebound of the game. From then on, the visitors had no choice but to intentionally foul with the shot clock turned off.
From the resulting inbound, the Dragons locked down defensively and knocked the ball out off, a Cavalier player, much to the delight of the Bradford bench.
Down two, the Bradford Dragons inbounded looking to tie or win the game. But that delight was short-lived, as a lapse in concentration cost the visitors dearly. An overthrown pass sailed out of bounds and that was that.
Head Coach Chris Mellor commented, “We dug ourselves a big hole early but played well in quarters two and three. We had a chance at the end but a big three from them and a couple of missed block outs were the decisive plays in the last few minutes.”
Top scorer for the Dragons was Rafi Saipe with 16 points, with Thames Valley’s Martelle Mclemore leading all scorers with 29 points.
The Dragons are back in action next Saturday (3.00pm), as they travel to take on the Leicester Warriors on Matchday 2. With the opening home game of the season against the Essex and Herts Leopards taking place at the Dragons Den the following weekend on Saturday, October 12th (6.15pm).
Photographs © Alex Daniel Photography