On the eve of bonfire Night, the Newcastle men’s Basketball side aimed to put on a sparkling performance at the Sports Centre to extend their lead in the BUCS Division 1 North. After watching a hard fought 51-49 victory by the twos against Leeds Met, the firsts sought to maintain their unbeaten status for the year.
The match was set to decide the top spot nearing the half way point of the season, with Sheffield Hallam aiming to steal it from Team Newcastle, after starting the season with a loss and 2 wins. But it wasn’t to be for Yorkshire men, as Coach Ian Hewitt’s Newcastle side continued their winning streak, taking the victory 80-65.
“I thought it was excellent to get the win. We didn’t play great in the last 15 minutes, but Sheffield Hallam had a number of British Basketball League players. We knew they’d play tough,” said Hewitt after the victory.
The match began at a frenzied pace, with Sheffield getting the first points on the board after the tip-off. But Nathan Ensz, the 6”8 American recruit born in Kansas, was commanding from the beginning, orchestrating play and guiding Uni into an early lead. Newcastle soon began to settle in, and held on to the lead with the aid of Robbie Lemons, ex Stanford player, drawing a foul and nailing the free throw.
After 8 minutes, the Geordie-side led by 10. The Sheffield squad tried to make the game as physical as possible early on. Their tactics appeared to be working towards the end of the first quarter, scoring 9 unanswered points before time was called.
“Nathan Ensz, the 6”8 American recruit born in Kansas, was commanding from the beginning, orchestrating play and guiding Uni into an early lead”
The first period proved to be extremely tight-fought, but the second quarter told a completely different story. Straight from the whistle, forward Tayo Oyefusi took over the game. After helping the team to a Division Four North and National Shield title last year, Hallam couldn’t get anywhere near Oyefusi during the 2nd quarter.
Alongside Charlie Wallrapp, the ex-Benedictine Ravens star, the pair dropped a number of 3 pointers to separate the two sides. Fighting hard in the first period appeared to take it out of the away team, as the Sheffield side failed to keep up with the class of their opponents.
With well over 6 minutes to go until the half, Team Newcastle held a lead of 16, but tightened their grip on the match before the referees blew for the break. Ensz and Wallrapp were ruthless, they worked together methodically to extend the lead to 45-22, and worked equally as hard in defence to hold the Yorkshire side to only 9 points in the second stanza.
While the Sheffield coach tried his utmost to rally his troops during the break, the second half began exactly as the first ended. Newcastle came out composed, looking to extend their lead and put the game out of Sheffield’s reach.
Hallam repeatedly fouled, which was the only way of slowing the Geordies down. They couldn’t cope with Newcastle’s attacking prowess for much of the third quarter. The Sheffield coach’s frustration was evident to all present, most notably during a brief sideline spat with the two match referees.
On the Home bench, Coach Ian Hewitt insisted the Uni side remained grounded, and ignored the constant fouls committed by the away side. Sheffield struggled to maintain control, and trailed 60-31 going into the final period of the match. However, the 4th quarter didn’t go exactly to plan. The Sheffield side came out firing hitting several 3 pointers straight from the off.
An enormous slam-dunk by the number 15 Oyefusi put the home side ahead by 24, but several fouls allowed Sheffield back into the battle. With only 4 minutes to go, Hallam trailed by only 16, and the pace of the match picked up significantly. A timeout called by the Newcastle sideline relaxed the home team, and two Wallrapp free throws with 20 seconds to go sealed the Newcastle win 80-65.
Coach Hewitt was impressed with the majority of the display, but recognised the need to improve their fourth quarter play. “Luckily we built up that cushion, so I wasn’t worried in terms of the result, but I was concerned in terms of the performance. That’s not something we want to do again. I think we’re able to play a lot better than that for the full forty minutes.”
Hewitt highlighted two key areas of improvement for the side to help achieve their aims for the rest of the season. “Mental focus is the first thing, making sure we don’t switch off. Also, we could defend ball screens a little better, keeping guys out of the paint that want to get in the paint. We don’t want to lose a game. We want to win everything: the trophy, the playoffs, the league.”
In spite of the difficulties towards the end, Oyefusi emphasised the importance of the win. “We knew it was going to be a tough game, Hallam just came down from the Premiers’ last season. We wanted to keep our momentum going, we came out really fast and wanted to make sure we executed out defensive plan.”
“We’re just going to keep playing hard. We came up good against every team we faced so far and hope to keep going”
“We definitely didn’t do as well in the second half, but the most important thing is that we managed to come out with the result. I do think we gave away too many fouls, but we know what each one of us can do on the defensive end. When we trust in each other, we play strong defence.”
“We’re just going to keep playing hard. There’s one more game until the midway point of the season. We came up good against every team we faced so far, and hope to keep that going.”
The Knights travel to Teeside next, in what will be firsts vs seconds in Northern 1A so a hotly fought encounter is expected.