By Vlad Ionasc
University of Chester Men’s Basketball Team conquered the Division 1A North title after a nail-biting 63-61 victory over bitter rivals Manchester.
Chris Leonard’s team showed great heart and resilience as they grinded out a famous triumph against the team which actually beat them to the title last season.
Alvaro Garcia-Chaichio paved the way with 16 points, while Isaac Ray and Reiss Faure-Daley were right behind the Spanish maestro with 14 points apiece.
Ray’s game-sealing block right at the death stood out as the play of the game but overall it was a great team performance from a selfless Chester squad.
The hosts began slowly as they were kept scoreless for the first two minutes. Dave Omole’s mid-range jumper at the 7:59 mark gave Chester its first two points. Omole followed up with a make from three-point range, which helped the hosts jump out to their first lead of the game, half-way through the first quarter. The home side closed the quarter strongly as they embarked on an 12-2 run during the closing minutes of the opening frame and went into the second quarter up 20-7.
Manchester replied to Chester’s dominant quarter with a 5-0 run and closed the gap to eight points inside the first two minutes of the second period of play. Chaichio stopped the bleeding at the 6:44 mark after he connected on an audacious lay-up attempt. Chaichio wiped out Manchester’s initial run after he drained a long two-point shot at the mid-way point of the quarter. The guests finished the second stanza slightly better as they outscored the hosts 10-to-2 during the final four minutes. Despite Manchester’s late scoring surge, Chester went into half-time up 29-22.
The Reds began the second half well, as they went on a 5-2 run inside the first two minutes. Chester’s intensity and relentlessness helped them establish a 13-point lead at the 5:55 mark. Leonard’s men pushed their advantage to 15 with 4:21 left in the penultimate quarter. The visitors profited from Chester’s inability to score in the closing minutes of the third quarter and trimmed the deficit down to eight going into the final frame.
Manchester tied the game at 49-apiece after they got off to a scorching-hot 8-0 start inside the opening three minutes of the final quarter. The two sides traded baskets for the remainder of the quarter, with neither team able to create any significant separation. An easy lay-up in transition put the visitors ahead by one-point with just over two minutes left in the game, however, Chester executed the last two minutes perfectly as they added three points and kept their opponents scoreless to secure the first league title in the university’s history.
Following the final buzzer, Coach Leonard praised his side’s spirit:
“I’ve played 23 seasons of basketball, and I’ve been around a lot of different basketball teams, yet I don’t think I’ve been around one that quite had this team spirit.”
The win earned the University its first ever league title across any sport, however Leonard claimed that ‘coaching mode’ didn’t allow him to get fully engrossed in his team’s achievement.
“I don’t think it’s sunk in yet to be honest. I’m still in coaching mode so I’ve just told the players that they haven’t got training tomorrow, they can go out and enjoy it tonight and soak it all in, but right now my mind is actually on our next game.”
Chester’s captain, Faure-Daley, praised the fans for backing the team from start to finish:
“Oh man, the fans were amazing, we need that atmosphere every week, we’ll keep winning, keep making them proud and get them jumping.”
Chester’s American sharpshooter Ray touched on his last-ditch block:
“I didn’t want their player to shoot the three with a second left so I just wanted to run him off the three-point line, but he actually shot the ball instead of trying to go by me so I was right in position and timed it perfectly.”
Chester will now try to build on their title-clinching win by securing a play-off place in the National Basketball League Division 2 and a place in the BUCS Trophy Final.
The fight for a playoff spot starts with a double header this weekend when they host Bristol Academy Flyers at 6pm on Saturday 29th February and Team Birmingham at 5 pm on Sunday 1st March. Both game will be played at the Downes Sports Hall.
Chester look to get a place in the BUCS Trophy final when they take on Nottingham Trent University in the Semi-FInal, also at the Downes Sports Hall on the 4th March. The game will tip-off at 8pm.