Bradford Dragons succumbed to a frustrating 84-81 defeat at the hands of long-time Division One rivals Derby Trailblazers in the Dragons final group game of the L Lynch Trophy on Saturday afternoon.
The Dragons returned to competitive action for the first time in almost a month after various postponements due to COVID. Hoping to stay perfect in group play and secure qualification for the knockout stages, Dragons faced off against a Trailblazers side that was also unbeaten after a 110-81 victory over Newcastle last weekend.
Perhaps somewhat bizarrely, Dragons were the designated home team for the game, played at the home of the Nottingham Wildcats (the temporary home of the Derby Trailblazers).
Looking to build on back-to-back wins to start the season, Dragons began like a team that didn’t quite have their legs under them. Struggling to hit jumpers early on, the hosts got their first six points from layups, but the Trailblazers soon capitalized on the early offensive slump.
Breaking into a 13-6 lead at the half-way mark of the opening period, Jacob Conway and Malcolm Smith combined for 12 of Derby’s 13 points.
Rather than continuing to settle for jump shots, Coach Mellor’s team looked to be more aggressive, driving into the paint looking to score or get to the free-throw line. The Dragons did just that as they got to the line six times, converting five of those.
Unfortunately for Dragons, the second quarter followed a similar pattern as the opener, with the hosts shooting woes continuing. Once again slow out of the blocks, Derby took advantage, extending their lead to 31-22 three minutes into the period as Conway continued to cause Dragons problems.
But like the opening period, despite the offensive struggles, Dragons did conjure up a run that brought them within one possession. A Matt Armstrong three was the start of a 7-0 run that looked to have finally woken up the Dragons.
With shots starting to fall more frequently, Dragons were able to go bucket for bucket with Derby for the rest of the quarter. Rihards Šulcs and Albert Margai showed all of their experience as they continued to draw fouls and cash in at the free-throw line.
Despite shooting just 35% after two quarters, Dragons did manage to capitalise at the free-throw line, where they made 10-14 attempts. Heading into the break, the game was tied at 37.
Neither team was able to put together a meaningful run in the third period as the Dragons continued to fight despite their struggles. Tight throughout, both teams cancelled each other out as they vied for the lead.
Down 54-48 with just over three minutes to play in the penultimate quarter, Bradford’s most important stretch of the quarter was sparked by some of that trademark Dragons defensive tenacity.
First, Šulcs skied for a defensive rebound in traffic, turning the ball to Tyme Regent-Bascombe in transition, who set up sharpshooter Dave Walsh for a trademark three.
Then it was a recent addition, Regent-Bascombe, who stepped into the limelight with a converted and-one layup that tied the game at 54, much to the delight of the hyped-up Dragons bench.
However, the Trailblazers closed out the quarter well with four straight points to lead 61-56 with 10 minutes to play.
Indicative of the Dragons performance throughout the game, the fourth quarter was all about the Dragons working to-dig themselves out of another self-imposed deficit.
Down by as many as 10 in the quarter, Dragons finally snapped into life as they trailed 79-71 with just under three minutes to play in the quarter.
A 9-2 run over the next minute of play had the hosts within three points of Derby once again. Back-to-back layups from Dragons stalwart Šulcs gave Coach Mellor’s team a fighting chance to claim an unlikely victory.
Down 81-78, with less than a minute left on the clock, Dragons forced the Trailblazers into what looked like a costly turnover; giving the hosts a vital offensive possession and a chance to tie the game.
After a couple of great looks at the basket on the following offensive possession, Dragons were unable to capitalise and were subsequently forced into intentionally fouling to try and extend the game.
Derby’s two key men, Charlie Brown and Conway, made no mistake and stepped up to make three out of four free-throws giving the visitors an unassailable six-point lead with two seconds left on the clock.
With qualification for the next round of the trophy still up for grabs, every point counts. Coach Mellor called a timeout and drew up a play that could prove to be pivotal down the line as Dave Walsh banked in a three at the buzzer to cut the final score to 84-81.
In the end, Dragons left themselves with too much to do down the stretch, falling to 2-1 in the group after an 84-81 defeat against the Derby Trailblazers.
All eyes turn to the final game of group play for Dragons as Derby and Myerscough go head-to-head. A Derby victory would send the Dragons through in the second spot, but a Myerscough win would leave all three teams with a 2-1 record, forcing a tie-break that would be decided by points difference.
Dave Walsh led the Dragons in scoring off the bench with 19 points on 3-7 shooting from three-point range. Ricky Fetske added 16 points and 11 rebounds for a second-successive double-double this season.
Jacob Conway led all scorers with 23 points, and Charlie Brown notably added 16 assists.