DURHAM WILDCATS gave tabletopping Esh Group Eagles Newcastle a late scare in the North East derby last Sunday, before Eagles finally victored 95-99.
Darius Defoe led the Eagles with 22 points and eight rebounds and scored crucial baskets down the stretch to ensure that the visitors maintained their title charge with an eighth win in a row.
The Wildcats have now lost three on the bounce and see their play-off spot under threat, but they could never quite be shaken off in this game.
The hosts led early on after Odiba Attah opened proceedings with a three-pointer, before Charles Smith scored seven points to see the Eagles up 6-9 and then added two more which, followed by Malik Cooke’s triple, helped them to a 13-20 lead.
Durham narrowed the gap but trailed 21-27 after ten minutes with Paul Gause scoring an ‘andone’ at the end of the first period.
But the hosts didn’t let the Eagles get away and set the tone for the rest of the game as they started the second much the stronger, tying at 33 as R J Evans scored consecutive baskets.
Wildcats took the lead when Mike Allison made it 41-40, but Gause responded for the Eagles before the teams ran up to halftime level pegging until Defoe scored the last basket before the break to see the Eagles up 47- 49.
Fab Flournoy came to the fore for Newcastle in the third quarter, scoring six points as his first three-pointer of the season made the score 54-62.
They still led by eight heading into the last seven minutes of the game, until Devin Ginty’s threepointer provided a spark for the hosts and scores from Evans and Ralph Bucci made it a one possession game at 76-79.
It was a one-point game when Ginty hit another three-pointer, 81-82 with three-and-a-half minutes left.
But then the Eagles showed the character that has them firmly in a BBL Championship title race.
Cooke and Defoe combined at the crucial moment – the former hit a three-pointer and the pair shared all of the points in a 10-2 run that put the Eagles back up 83-92 with a minute-and-a-half to play.
The game wasn’t over as, amazingly, Bucci and Danny Huffor hit consecutive threepointers to make the score 89-92 inside the final minute.
But Defoe was there again with a crucial dunk and, after another Huffor three-pointer, Smith sealed it with 2/2 freethrows.