Bradford Dragons clinched a narrow 74-73 road win over the 7th seeded Essex Rebels in the first round of the playoffs on Sunday afternoon.
Dragons fought hard all game long and rightfully claimed their place in the second round of the playoffs after edging a nervy final quarter.
A clutch Andreas Lycoudis three with less than 50 seconds left on the clock, proved to be the game-winning moment as the Dragons shut out the Rebels down the stretch.
In a high-scoring first quarter of play, it was the visitors who came out the block’s fastest, breaking into an early 7-1 lead, with buckets from Rihards Šulcs and Tyme Regent-Bascombe.
The Rebels responded well, with four of their five starters scoring in a 12-0 run that put the hosts 13-7 to the good halfway through the opening period.
The rest of the quarter set the tempo for the game as both teams cancelled each other out in a back-and-forth finish to the quarter
With neither team able to put a run together, the Rebels led 27-25 at the end of the first quarter.
After a high-octane opening quarter, the scoring slowed down in the second period as both teams began to lock in defensively.
Struggling to knock down perimeter shots, Dragons drove into the paint and got their points at the rim.
No team had built a lead of more than two points in the quarter until Jermayne Laing dragged the Dragons offense on his shoulders to close the half.
At halftime, the Dragons led 42-39.
Out of the break, it was the visitors who looked most threatening to break open the game.
Firstly, Laing and Regent-Bascombe combined to give Dragons a five-point lead, then minutes later, a Šulcs three-point play handed Dragons a game-high six-point lead.
But as so often had been the case in the game, when either team went on a run, a response swiftly followed from the other.
Out of a timeout, the hosts rattled off six straight points to restore parity in a gritty first-round matchup.
After three quarters of play, the game was all tied up at 58.
With the season on the line, the fourth quarter turned into a period for the defensive purists.
Despite struggling mightily from three-point land all game, the Dragons knocked down three of their seven threes when they needed them most.
The first came through Dragons resident three-point specialist Dave Walsh, who opened the fourth quarter scoring.
As the game tightened up, the middle section of the fourth quarter, was controlled by the Dragons stalwarts, Ricky Fetske and Rihards Šulcs.
In a low-scoring quarter, buckets were hard to come by, but the veteran leadership and scoring savvy of Fetske and Šulcs dragged the Dragons through a difficult stretch.
With just over 2:39 left on the game clock, Rebels 7-footer Lee Hodges banked in a layup that gave the hosts a 72-71 lead.
Dragons were in the penalty, and the Rebels looked to take advantage, taking the ball aggressively to the rim in the closing minutes.
Both Hodges and his teammate Jordan Gray got to the line for a pair of free throws, but only Gray managed to convert as the Rebels went 1-4 in a costly stretch of misses.
Gray’s single free-throw make extended his team’s lead to 73-71 with less than two minutes to play.
Then came the game-winning moment for Dragons. Having missed several good looks in the second half, Andreas Lycoudis kept a shooter’s mentality and nailed the three that mattered most.
Just inside the final minute of action, good perimeter ball movement from the Dragons presented Lycoudis with a wide-open look from the top of the key, and he duly knocked it down.
With 45 seconds still to play, Dragons had to lock in defensively and see the game out.
The Rebels Lee Hodges had been causing the visitors trouble in the paint all game long and looking to put his team back in the ascendency, Hodges lowered his shoulder and barrelled into Šulcs, who drew a vital offensive foul.
Collecting his fifth foul of the game, Hodges fouled out, and the hosts lost their size when they needed it the most.
After Dragons turned the ball over recklessly, the Rebels had the ball in their hands with the shot clock turned off.
The Rebels missed a good look from three, but without Hodges in the game, the hosts were unable to make a put back tip, and the buzzer sounded, much to the delight of the Dragons bench, who erupted in celebration.
The Final Score, Essex Rebels 73-74 Bradford Dragons. A thoroughly deserved win for the Dragons as they ground out a narrow playoff victory on the road.
Jordan Gray led all scorers with 18 points.
Jermayne Laing scored 16 points, adding 5 rebounds and 4 assists, with Rihards Šulcs, also adding 16 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 steals.
Box Score: https://www.fibalivestats.com/u/BBE/1876001/bs.html#ASFSK
Coach Mellor singled out the Dragons defensive tenacity as a key to victory, he said:
“Our defensive intensity and overall commitment at that end of the floor was really good right from the tip. It could have gone either way at the end, but thankfully the ball rolled in our favour on the final possession.”
Andreas Lycoudis shared his delight with the team’s ability to prove the doubters wrong, he said:
“Nobody expected us to win for some reason, including Essex, but we showed why we can compete with any team in the league.”
Lycoudis also touched on the importance of the team’s stellar defensive performance, adding:
“It was a great gutsy team performance with everyone doing whatever they can to help the team win. In the end, experience and our commitment to defence won us the game.”
Next up for Dragons is a trip to face the number 3 seeded team, Hemel Storm, in the second round of the playoffs, on Saturday 1st May, with tip off at 5pm.
Photographs © Alex Daniel Photography