Two weeks, four wins: basketballers sweep Loughborough and Durham

Courtney Strait directs traffic against Loughborough University. Image: Patrick Wrencher

Newcastle Womens 1sts vs Loughborough

The Christmas break must have been just what the doctor ordered, because the Newcastle University Basketball Club is heating up. In the first month back after time off during the holiday,  the NUBC first teams have combined for an undefeated record in BUCS play. The Knights are gaining momentum at the perfect time, as playoffs are just around the corner.

Though the regular season is coming to close in the next few weeks, the final road trips have featured some exciting matches across the country for Team Newcastle. On 31 January the Knights stole two victories from one of the nation’s BUCS point leader in Loughborough University. The women’s team started off the evening by taking down last years’ BUCS champion in dramatic fashion. The game featured a back and forth affair for the majority of the night, with Loughborough leading by ten at halftime. Team Newcastle kept their cool, though, and made huge plays when they most needed them. Down five points with just over a minute to go, Knights newcomer Cassidy Sanders-Curry was instrumental in the comeback. Sanders-Curry hit a long three pointer to cut the lead to two, and then came up with a steal on the following posession that led to a Newcastle bucket with nine seconds remaining on the clock. The Knights made a strong defensive stand to end regulation time that pushed the game into overtime.

The first overtime mirrored the first four quarters, as neither team could gain a foothold or take a commanding lead. As the clock ticked down, the Knights pulled off another string of stops that pushed the game into a second overtime. Just as in the first overtime, the game was neck and neck until the final buzzer. Point guard Courtney Strait hauled in a rebound off a missed free throw and pushed the ball down the floor, pulled up and sunk a jump shot as the clock expired to put the game into — you guessed it — a THIRD overtime.

In the third overtime period the Knights took over. Strait, who had a career high 43 points on the evening, hit two three pointers and a string of free-throws to seal the deal and claim a well-deserved 96-86 victory. Though the Knights were playing shorthanded without one of their leaders in Noelia Quintas who is out with a concussion, every team member stepped up and pushed through fatigue to outwork a talented Loughborough team through 55 minutes of play. Team members Eleanor Goodwin and Amara Jackson showed fantastic poise throughout the game on both sides of the floor, as well as Grace Elliott who tallied double digit assists in the game. Head Coach Mark Elderkin said the Knights’ performance was one of the best displays of mental and physical toughness he had ever witnessed.

 

Newcastle Womens 1sts vs Durham

The squad carried their momentum from Loughborough into their game 7 February, as they travelled to Durham to take on a heated Northern rival. This game was especially important because the faceoff would determine playoff matchups in the BUCS Premiere North Division. Team Newcastle defeated Durham earlier in the season, so this game was for all the bragging rights and third place in the division. Similarly to the previous week, the game was not decided until the final buzzer and featured drama at every turn.

Team Durham took an early lead on their home floor, as their athletic guards were able to push the floor for easy buckets. As Team Newcastle settled in they gained confidence and utilised impressive ball movement for easy shots around the rim. Off-ball movement from Goodwin and Jackson was, once again, a key factor in the Knights’ offensive success. Alongside Goodwin and Jackson, Elliott continued her consistent play, posing a strong force both offensively and defensively for the Knights. Her presence in the lane deterred the Durham offense throughout the night and her smart decision-making on offense helped push the Knights to victory. Strait contributed for Team Newcastle as well, scoring 27 points in the rematch.

The game was a neck and neck in the first half. The most Durham led in the first half was seven points, and despite giving up a barrage of offensive rebounds the Knights hung around and finished the half down by only two points. In the third quarter, Newcastle captured all the momentum. Buckets down the stretch from all five starters helped claim the lead and make it a double-digit advantage.

But the game was far from over — in the final quarter Team Durham made a strong comeback and eventually took a one-point lead with one minute to play. In front of a lively crowd the Knights were calm under pressure and forced a steal with under twenty seconds left in the game. One of the team’s best defenders, Amara Jackson, pressured a Durham ball handler, knocked the ball loose, stole the ball and passed it down the court to Courtney Strait who finished the layup to put the Knights ahead by one, 69-68. Just like against Loughborough, Team Newcastle got a defensive stop as the clock expired to claim their sixth victory of the season. They returned to Newcastle to sole possession of third place in the league — the best regular season finish in programme history.

 

Point guard Romonn Nelson skies to the basket
Image: Courtney Strait

Newcastle Mens 1sts vs Loughborough

It seems that away road-trips have been a good luck charm for the Knights, as the men’s first team followed in the women’s winning ways by topping both Loughborough and Durham — two teams that held higher positions in the division at the time. The men stepped up to the challenge in the evening finale 31 January against Loughborough. After a long bus journey, Head Coach Ian Hewitt had his team firing on all cylinders, featuring a methodical defensive effort against a number of Loughborough players who compete in the BBL for the Leicester Riders.

Before the match Loughborough was the top ranked team in the league and was undefeated in divisional play. But the Knights had other plans for the evening, as first year Knight, postgraduate Patrick Wrencher led the way with a menacing performance in the paint. He pulled down double digit rebounds and scored a season-high 31 points to pace Team Newcastle. On the offensive end, Thanasis Ioakeimidis ran the show for Newcastle, pushing the pace and showcasing a few flashy behind-the-back passes for assists. Joey Bennett and Zach Leal also were consistent offensive contributors for the Knights.

Though Team Newcastle had a strong offensive outing, it’s their defence that led them to a 70-64 victory. Kingsley Pinda, Ioakeimidis and defensive specialist Jack Beresford shut down Loughborough’s top players and forced them into difficult finishes at the rim, contested jump shots and constant pressure whilst handling the basketball. The Knights’ high energy on defence kept the opponent on their toes all forty minutes and helped spur their own offensive posessions.

Despite Loughborough’s last minute attempts at a comeback, the Knights polished off the victory by chasing down rebounds, taking care of the basketball and hitting their free throws.

 

Newcastle Mens 1sts vs Durham

In their game against Durham on 7 February the men’s team claimed an 81-73 victory in similar fashion, using a smooth offensive attack balanced with a formidable defensive effort. Joey Bennett hit six threes in one of his best offensive performances of the season, as the Knights surged to a twenty point lead in the first half. Starters Ioakeimidis and Leal played big minutes for the Knights and, as usual, took great care of the basketball and helped push the tempo throughout the game. Coach Hewitt had the Knights prepared for Durham’s high-powered offence and did a marvelous job shutting down their key players — especially in the lane. Wrencher did a top-knotch job marking Team Durham’s post players and did not shy away from their physicality.

Looking ahead, Team Newcastle has comfortable position of third place in the BUCS Premier North Division. Despite the result of their upcoming rematch against still top-ranked Loughborough, the Knights will retain third place heading into playoffs later in the month. Their final regular season game is Wednesday, 14 February. Though the game does not make a difference to the Team Newcastle’s overall position in the standings, another victory against a high-powered Loughborough team would serve as a fantastic momentum builder.

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