London supremacy was the ambition as the Lions embarked on the 2020 campaign, and this Sunday the club will have its opportunity to lay down a marker as both the men and women compete for silverware in their respective Trophy finals.
While the men face the Plymouth Raiders in a bid to go one better than January’s BBL Cup final defeat to the Newcastle Eagles, Mark Clark’s WBBL Championship contenders are due to meet the Nottingham Wildcats.
Parallels in success reaffirm the franchise’s commitment to enhancing the growth of the game across all fronts, a focus head coach Vince Macaulay discussed with Miami-based 777 Partners upon their investment in the club last year.
“It’s about improving basketball,” Macaulay told Sky Sports. “Women’s basketball is very strong and the WBBL has been going from strength to strength, you’ve got investment into programmes up and down the country, what’s happening in Leicester, the ladies at Manchester, Sevenoaks obviously, so we felt we needed to join that party.
“And obviously working closely with the Barking Academy and their development with young girls over a period of time, it’s about adding the elements it requires to be strong in those areas and then be more resourceful in how we allocate that. It was definitely something we wanted and something we should have.
“Everybody knows a team in London needs to be right there or there abouts, doing well in Europe, good men’s team, good women’s team, good junior pathway programme. Those are all the things we want to do.
“They take time to build. As we’ve gradually grown and blended we’ve been able to say ‘this is the direction we want to go’. The girls have done tremendously well with what they’ve been doing this season while also operating with COVID situations so to actually have both teams there at the same time is really good.”
The Lions were recently among five London and Essex-based elite sports clubs that joined forces to create the pioneering ‘Women’s Elite Sport Partnership’, designed to help sustain the development of women’s sport in the UK.
For Team GB and former University of Colorado guard Kennedy Leonard, who signed with the BA Lions in October, the commitment to both sides has been evident.
“We have a really good sponsor who puts an emphasis on both us and the men’s team,” she said. “I think the fact we both made this final speaks a lot to how not only our sponsorship wants to grow the women’s game but how we’re good enough to grow it ourselves, we have the talent to grow it and we want to be able to show people the basketball here on the women’s side is up and coming.
“We get the same things the guys get so it’s nice to see that and hopefully we can continue to win games and make the finals and show people we’re here too, it’s not just the boys.”
“London Lions is both men and women, not just one or the other.”
Leonard discusses the Lions’ push for club-wide success
Such have been the circumstances this season that the Lions men were left without eight players for their BBL Cup final loss to the Eagles due to COVID, with Sunday’s match-up beckoning as a long-awaited shot at silverware for those that missed out.
They have since won three of their last seven in the BBL Championship and currently sit fourth in the table, two points off second and 12 points off the first-placed Leicester Riders, carrying four games in hand on the leaders.
“We wanted to be in a position to have an opportunity to win every title,” added Macaulay. “That’s one of the things we set ourselves as a goal. We had a great opportunity in the Cup final in January and now the next silverware has come along and low and behold we’ve seen off two very good clubs in the Newcastle Eagles and Leicester Riders to get there.
“Now we’re playing the coach that’s got the most games under his belt in the BBL in Paul James, an old friend of mine, in what should be a thrilling encounter really.”
High standards also translate to the women’s side, where Leonard and her team-mates are in pursuit of a double as current frontrunners in the WBBL Championship – a competition they were winless in through 16 games in 2019-20.
A disappointing WBBL Cup campaign looms as motivation for Clark’s unit, who, like the men’s team, overcame close Championship rivals in the Essex Rebels and Leicester Riders on their journey to the Trophy final. Cassie Breen, who is averaging a team-high 20.8 points per game in the WBBL Championship, poured in a game-high 18 as the Lions beat the latter 73-58 earlier this month.
“With the talent we have and the players we have I think that [silverware] was definitely the expectation,” said Leonard. “Not getting to that first one was a bit of a killer because we thought we could and thought we were better than we showed so to get to this one speaks to our character as a team and being resilient.”
Leonard enters the weekend having recorded double-doubles in each of her last four outings and averaging a league-high 10.2 and 11.5 assists per game in both the Championship and Trophy, respectively.
The 24-year-old left the University of Colorado as the D1 programme’s all-time leader in assists (644) along with a haul of 1,635 points in 114 games, 112 of which were starts across a four-year college career. Upon graduating she spent her first season as a professional in Germany’s top flight with Herner TC before landing with the BA Lions ahead of the 2020-21 campaign.
“I feel good about my form,” she said. “Obviously I can’t get double-doubles without team-mates who make shots, I have good people around me and I’m feeling pretty good and finally in the swing of things.
“We’re finally playing more than one game in a week, when before we were playing maybe one game every 10 days [because of COVID] so now we’re playing four in five days, four in seven days so to be able to play basketball again like we’re meant to has helped get back into the swing of things.”
Similarly to the interrupted schedule Leonard alludes to, the coronavirus pandemic has made for a trickier integration than the men’s side might have hoped for on the back of a busy summer of recruitment.
The Lions were among the more active teams when it came to new acquisitions as they built a squad up to as many as 16 players in preparation for their Champions League commitments, with former NBA veteran DeAndre Liggins and Louisville product Kevin Ware arriving as marquee additions from the US.
Opportunities for players to bond away from the court may have been limited, nevertheless, Macaulay remains pleased with the brand of basketball his team have been able to execute.
“We’re very much a fast-paced team,” he continued. “I think we’re first or second in terms of who’s playing the fastest, I think we lead the league in scoring, we lead the league in three points attempted, three-pointers made and three-point percentage so we’re up and down the floor very well.
“When you play that fast you have to sacrifice certain things which we do and for us, it’s about knowing about when to go and maybe when not to go as much, but we want to play at that pace.
“It’s such a shame the fans aren’t here because I know how much the fans would have enjoyed this type of basketball. I looked at a clip the other day as part of my research and the last game we played at the Copper Box was against Leicester, there were over 3,000 people in the building and the place was humming.
“For the new guys we have like DeAndre Liggins, Kevin Ware, they have no idea what our fans are like and it’s like ‘oh my goodness they could play a full season and not get to meet them’ which would be criminal.”
Coach Macaulay discusses missing the Lions fans in 2021
Dirk Williams leads the Lions with an average of 16.2 points per game in the BBL Championship so far this season, followed by Justin Robinson’s 14.9 and Liggins’ 14.5, with the latter meanwhile averaging a team-high 6.1 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game.
The trio have also starred in the Trophy campaign, Liggins averaging 18.8 points through four games alongside 17.8 and 12.8 from Williams and Robinson, respectively.
Leading scorer Breen put up 35 points as the Lions women beat Nottingham 94-74 in January, before Leonard and Stephanie Umeh posted 21 points apiece to help see off the Wildcats 79-61 in February’s reverse fixture.
Nottingham’s most notable scoring threat comes in the form of ex-Union and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga guard Chelsey Shumpert, who is averaging a team-high 20.4 points alongside 5.4 rebounds and six assists this season. Her former college team-mate Jasmine Joyner is not far behind, averaging 19.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game.
“They’re talented, they have two really good Americans who make their team what they are and they have some young kids that also help that a lot,” said Leonard. “At any given moment those two can change an entire game.
“If we just focus on knowing what they do and what we can do to combat them then I think our game is good enough, but at the same time we can’t take them lightly, it’s our third time playing them and we know it’s going to be a different atmosphere, it’s a big hyped-up game so I think for them they’ll be looking to come in and shock us.”
The Lions men meanwhile sit level on 22 points with Plymouth in the BBL Championship having played three games fewer.
Macaulay’s side have won two of three meetings with the Raiders so far this season, most recently clinching a 87-70 win in February thanks to 25-point performances from Williams and Liggins.
Plymouth are spearheaded by GB international Ashley Hamilton, who is averaging 16.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game in the Championship.
“They’re a very deep team,” said Macaulay. “When you look at teams like ourselves and Leicester and Plymouth, these are deeper teams than the BBL has seen in over 20 years. Very deep with great talent.
“I think they’re very deep, they’re very big and they’ve got a really nice group of British players which I think is fundamental and something every team in the BBL should have.
“People like Ashley Hamilton, Denzel Ubiaro, who is one of the most improved guys, Elvisi (Dusha) and Ashley were in the last Trophy final against us two years ago so these are guys who care about British basketball and want to be at the pinnacle of basketball in this country.”
Watch the WBBL Trophy final between London Lions and Nottingham Wildcats live from 2.30pm on Sky Sports Mix and Sky Sports Arena on Sunday, followed by the BBL Trophy final between the London Lions and Plymouth Raiders from 5pm on the same channels.
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