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  • Ayo Biyibi

Gran Canaria Erode Lions Defensive Identity

If the London Lions EuroCup regular-season openerwas a rude awakening and their second game a reclamation of their defensive identity, their third was the erosion of all the hard work re-established in game two, which was on display early during the 1st quarter, against Gran Canaria.

(Image Via EuroCup)

“It's going to be a tough battle for us. [We’re going to] play through multiple guys and defend at a high level.” Said Lions head coach Ryan Schmidt During his pregame interview.

Tough, why? Well, that’s because Gran Canaria, currently sitting pretty in third place in the Spanish ACB, the second-toughest domestic basketball league in the world, have reached the semi-or quarter-final of the EuroCup in five of the last eight years.


That said, matchups like this are the same reason the Lions put together their incredibly talented veteran-laden squad. A host of players with championship-levelexperience, including the likes of Sam Dekker, 2021/22 FIBA Europe Cup champion, Vojtěch Hruban, 2020 All Basketball Champions League First Team Select, Tomislav Zubčić, a veteran of a top 16 finish in the FIBA Europe Cup and two deep Basketball Champions League runs.


Not to forget Kareem Queeley, a 2019–20 Basketball Champions League winner and their talisman, Agent 0 Ovie Soko, a 2018 All-Basketball Champions League First Team Select and a 2019 All-Basketball Champions League Second Team Select.


Regardless of the Lions’ collective experience, the Spanish islander’s head coach Jaka Lakovic, flat-out REFUSED to underestimate the EuroCup newbies.

“We expect a physical match with London. [They’re an] aggressive [and] physical team. We have to be ready to be great defensively and build our confidence from defence to offence.” Said the Slovenian former NBA draft pick and 2010 EuroLeague champion.

London Lions’ and Gran Canaria’s respective EuroCup squads were bolstered by the return of each of their highly favoured players, Kosta Koufos and AndrewAlbicy, respectively. On their return from injury, both had “tune-up games” in their respective domestic leagues. Koufos in the Lions' 91-83 victory against the Manchester Giants and Albicy in Canaria’s 94-76 win against Coviran Granada.


But here we are, in a practically empty but beautiful-looking Gran Canaria Arena. The Londoners and the Canary Islanders were ready and prepared to improve their 1-1 records.

1st Quarter: 21-15


The Londoners started the game with Aaron Best, Luke Nelson, Vojtěch Hruban, Ovie Soko, and Kosta Koufosmatched up against Spaniard Ferran Bassas, Frenchman Damien Inglis, Polish big man Aleksander Balcerowskiand Italians Vitor Benite and Nicolas Brussino.


The first quarter was anything but smooth sailing for either team. Out of the gate, Vojtěch Hrubanimmediately found himself forced to take a tough shotfrom the corner. A well-orchestrated play drawn up by head coach Ryan Schmidt, yet well-defended by Benite, the experienced snipper could only hit the edge of the backboard.


Although both teams kept firing blanks until around the 8:51 mark, the Lions' found themselves in good positions to knock down shots. Unfortunately, they could not execute, whereas Gran Canaria constantly found themselves fighting through the Lions’challenging defence. Closing out on shooters, boxing out and rebounding on the defensive and offensive end(Ovie grabbed 3 offensive boards), the Lions' defensive identity was well on show for the rest of their Group B opponents to scout.


One of the most interesting (and understated) areas of this can be seen in the way Canadian guard (YES GUARD) Aaron Best SUCCESSFULLY seals off and boxes out bigs or bigger players in general. The 2022 CEBL champion did this several times to Trento’s bigs,and early against Gran Canaria; he found himself in this very same predicament.


Lion-hearted (pun intended), the 1.93 m/ 6’4” former Raptors 905 G-Leaguer challenged Frenchman Damien Inglis in the low block. Constantly making it difficult for Gran Canaria to run a high-low play; Best kept sealing off the 2.03 m/6’8”, 109 kg, 240 lb body of the French Guiana born combo forward. However, the proverbial levee broke, with Best having to foul Inglisas he attempted a tip-in.  


Best’s foul was the first of many team fouls the Lions conceded, not only in the first quarter but throughout the game. The Spanish islanders took full advantage of this knocking down 83.3% over the four quarters compared to London’s 68.4%.


The Lions' stern and intense defensive identity kept raring its glorious head again and again, forcing the likes of Damien Inglis and Miquel Salvo into unforcedturnovers. However, as stated, the British Basketball League leaders kept racking up team fouls which contributed to the erosion of their proud defensive identity.


The Canary Islanders kept the Londoners at bay for most of the first period; however, their levees broke at the 03:03 mark when Josh Sharma’s hustle play resulted in the ball finding Kosta Koufos close to the basket for an easy layup. This put the Lions 13-12 up. The only time they would lead during the game.


Gran Canaria closed out the first quarter on a 4-0 run, which seems like nothing, but when you consider the fact that the Lions conceded four more fouls, you’ll realise how upsetting this must have been to the team as a whole.

2nd Quarter: 42-32


Frustratingly for the thousands of Lions’ fans that packed out the Copper Box Arena the week prior, their home city squad didn’t fare that much better in the second period.


Andrew Albicy got things rolling with a triple to push Gran Canaria’s lead to 24-15. Former UC Irvinestandout Luke Nelson knocked down his triple, following the “and 1” heroics of Vojtěch Hruban to shorten the deficit to 3 points, 26-23, in favour of the Spanish islanders.


As Ovie continued to rack up more offensive rebounds, what ensued during this time was a myriad of more fouls and turnovers. In total, the Lions conceded 20 turnovers to Gran Canaria’s 17. This doesn’t seem so bad when viewed from a wide lens. However, when given more context, via the gaze of a magnifying glass, said stats are not easy to look past.


15 of the Lions' total turnovers came from their startersversus 5 total from Gran Canaria’s starters, with some arriving at such curial times. For example, Ovie’s 07:27 second-quarter turnover eventually led to Balcerowski’s 3-pointer, which pushed Canaria’s advantage to a 28-23 lead. Furthermore, Kosta’s 04:54 turnover eventually led to the Polish big man’s 2-pointer, which extended Gran Canaria’s lead to 35-27 in the second period.


Team fouls continued to hamper London’s progress as they racked up more numbers in that particular stat column as they attempted to close out the quarter, better than what was executed in the first.

Balcerowski (him again!) hit one of two free throws to help cushion Canaria’s lead to 38-29 with 02:14 left in the second period. The injury-free Albicy joined the party knocking down both of his free-throw shots a mere 13 seconds later to push the lead to 40-29.


Hruban hit back with a triple, but Salvo’s 2-pointer soon followed that to push the lead to 10 points, 42-32,in favour of the sunny islanders.


3rd Quarter: 62-42


Disastrously, what was said at halftime did not yield the right results needed throughout the quarter, as the Lions only scored 10-points during the entire period.


Gran Canaria started their second-half push with two back-to-back triples, less than 45 seconds apart, extending their advantage to a 48-32 lead. Microwavescorer AJ Slaughter joined the party-goers with his triple at the 06:54 mark, pushing the lead to 54-35.


AJ’s dagger forced Ryan Schmidt to call a time-out to try to stop the rot and rally his troops.


“We’re not out of this” – Schmidt.
“Don’t feel sorry for ourselves” – Ovie Soko.


These were the rallying cries from the head coach and his vocal captain, but alas, Gran Canaria continued their dominance, ending the quarter with yet another 3-point make.


4th Quarter: 87-69


The 4th quarter was (almost) equally the Lions’ most successful quarter from an offensive standpoint, but it was also their worst from a defensive perspective. The London representatives scored 27 points to the Spaniards' 25.


The 4th quarter opened with yet another 3-point party,but this time, the Lions’ very own “Zuba” (Tomislav Zubčić) went along for the ride. AJ Slaughter connected from beyond the arc, followed by “Zuba,” himself,followed by David Mutaf.  


The 20-year-old Mutaf sublimated his triple with a 2-point shot to take his tally to 8-points via a dime fromAndrew Albicy.


The quarter continued with both teams trading shots. Despite the fact the Spanish islander’s head coach JakaLakovic REFUSED to underestimate London Lions, at the 08:36 mark, Lakovic subbed in more of the younger members of his squad, starting with Dan Duscak (20 years old) and then Ruben Lopez (20 years old).

They slipped defensively but maintained enough offensive pressure to walk away with the victory.


“We [didn’t] match their physicality and toughness. Especially the rebounding, getting pushed off our spots, [including] on the offensive side for us.” Said Schmidt during his post-game interview regarding the issues they had during the game.

Praising his opponents “Give credit to them; they’re a really well-balanced team, well-coached and tough. We just got to be better.”

(Image via EuroCup)


If the game against Trento and large parts of the first quarter is to go by, the London Lions will bounce back to surprise many more people.

Written by: Ayo Biyibi

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