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  • Ayo Biyibi

London Lions Reclaim Their Defensive Identity Over Trento!

Round 1’s EuroCup regular-season opener against Hapoel was a rude awakening for the London Lions. Cold sweat awakenings resulted from poor 3-point shooting, poor defence and a severe lack of concentration and discipline to the tune of 13 turnovers (to name but a few issues).

Going into Round 2 against Italy’s Trento, something had to change. Unfortunately, the East London-based team were forced into changes they didn’t foresee nor want to make but, in hindsight, may have proved to be “blessings in disguise.” Injuries to Kostas Koufos and Sam Dekker forced head coach Ryan Schmidt’s hand out of his early season

reliance on the potent but slow-grinding Dekker and Ovie Soko two-man offence that had been causing considerable damage in the British Basketball League.

Image via EuroCup

However, the flip side of that coin was a much more fluid offence that utilised better ball movement, pace and space, allowing captain Ovie Soko to operate with a bit more room. North London-proud Soko took full advantage of this in the first quarter, dropping 13 points on an efficient 4 for 4 from inside the semicircle and hitting a triple from beyond the arc.

“I think we did a much better job of moving the ball. We’ll have hot streaks when we move the ball because there’s so much space inside. We have a lot of guys that can really shoot the ball and spread the floor. I think it was a case of just me being on the end of the ball movement.” Said Soko at the post-game press conference.

Agent 0 wasn’t the only Lions’ star that enjoyed the spacing in the first quarter, with fellow British star Luke Nelson and the Czech Republic international Vojtech Hruban also joining the fray from beyond the arc, both hitting a 3-pointer each. As fluid as the Lions were on the offensive side of the ball, their performance on the defensive side of the ball let them down during the first period, conceding 27 total points. Trento, unlike London, had seven players on the scoresheet led by Drew Crawford, who was lights out from downtown, connecting on both of his 3-point attempts.

2nd Quarter: 41-44

Defence wins you games, let alone championships, and with Trento leading 27-21 going into the second quarter, coach Schmidt may have sensed that the game could go down the same route as their opener against Hapoel, where they conceded 24 points.

However, at this point, the Lions began to tighten their screws to reclaim their defensive identity. The first quarter saw Trento, sitting in fourth place in Italy’s mighty LBA Serie A, shoot 50% from 2-point range.

Nonetheless, their shooting percentage dropped to 42% via London’s tough defence constantly bothering Trento’s smooth ball movement, pushing their failed shot attempts late into the shot clock. Ryan Schmidt’s men continued to tighten the screws via multiple stops, claiming 6 steals. This was led by talisman Ovie Soko whose thievery was replicated by teammates Tomislav Zubcic, Mo Soluade, Luke Nelson

and Vojtech Hruban. With the Lions interior defence proving challenging to puncture, Trento sought ulterior motives via their long-range snippers, Drew Crawford, Toto Forray and Diego Flaccadori. All of them shot 2 for 2 from 3-point range.

Flaccadori hit his second triple with 0:59 seconds left on the clock, on the back of a fast break caused by Zubcic’s turnover, to put Trento back in the 44-41 going into the half-time break.

3rd Quarter: 58-60

To put it politely, the third period was a dogfight. The lions; defensive intensity went up several notches, causing their opponents to shoot an inefficient 34% from 2-point range on a very low 10 for 34 clip. But the Lions weren’t without their own slippage, conceding 5 turnovers in the third, 2 of which were by point guard Devon Van Oostrum who was brought on at 4:39 as relief for Luke Nelson and subsequently

subbed off soon after. “We put him in, and I don’t think he was in rhythm because he didn’t play in the first half. We know what Devon is capable of giving us; I think tonight wasn’t the night. 2 turnovers in about a minute and a half. I just felt down the stretch it was important to go with Luke and Mo and Aaron and [Vojtech].” Stated

Schmidt when questioned about Van Oostrum’s short playing time.

The third quarter was a back-and-forth affair until its final moments when Zubcic hit a much-needed 3- point shot to tie the game at 58-58, to which Trento’s Matteo Spagnolo replied with a tough contested layup.

4th Quarter: 80-75

With the loud sounds of the home town faithful fans pulsating around the CopperBox Arena, the Lions walked confidently onto the court, knowing that they had held their North Italian-based rivals to their lowest points total in the previous quarter.

If the third quarter was a back-and-forth affair, then the fourth was nothing less than a slugfest with both teams trading blows but neither team landing the knockout punch. This clearly showed how Ovie Soko and Trento’s Andrejs Grazulis were jostling for position on the low block. At one stage, down the stretch, one of the officials had to give each of them a warning.

“It’s not personal; it's just how I play the game.” Said Ovie regarding his “game within the game” tussling with Grazulis.

“I play with a lot of emotion, I play with a lot of energy, so sometimes it can get a little chippy. It's nothing personal; it's just how I play.”

He added. With just 2:15 left on the clock, Ovie drew a foul from Grazulis, which sent the Londoner to the line and 29-year-old Andrejs to the bench; having fouled out – Ovie was too much for him to handle.

As expected,Ovie was clutch from the line, sinking both shots and tying up the score at 74-74. With the time ticking away, the Lions continued to reclaim their defensive identity, drawing offensive fouls via the high IQ plays from Hruban and sublime team defence, sending Trento into shot clock violations.

Image via EuroCup

However, these great plays were sometimes ruined by nonsensical turnovers and mindless fouls. Soko came up clutch yet again with 0:45 seconds left on the clock, sinking 2 free throws to put the hometown heroes up by 2 points, 76-74. Aaron Best also showed that he has clutch genes knocking down a couple of free throw shots with 17.3 seconds left to put the Lions up, 78-75 and then again with 5.3 seconds left to seal the historic win, 80-75.

Written by: Ayo Biyibi (@iam_Ayo / Twitter)

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