In a Final that should be remembered as an instant classic, both Team Birmingham Elite and Middlesex LTBC left everything out on the court in an attempt to secure the D3M Playoff Championship. Middlesex eventually came out on top, 63-62, but the result was in the balance right up until the final buzzer. In a fixture that had everything, the crowd were treated to a real spectacle to end Playoff Saturday at the National Basketball Performance Centre in Manchester.
With the score line separated by just a single digit, Birmingham brought the ball up the floor with just 15 seconds remaining in an effort to tip the game in their favour. Alex Anderson’s 3-point attempt couldn’t find the mark on a day when his side shot 28% from the floor. With Middlesex grabbing the rebound, it was a heart breaking way to end the game for the Birmingham side.
MVP honours went LTBC big man Marius Talijunas who’s tireless work on the boards helped to decide an otherwise even game. Pulling down 19 rebounds, adding 9 points and an impressive 7 blocks, the 6’6” rim protector did the dirty work that so often goes unnoticed, but not today.
Establishing an early lead was always going to be important to Middlesex as they came into the game with just 8 players to call upon. Modestas Krasauskas seemed to be the LTBC that took that most literally as he exploded out of the blocks to score 15 points in the opening quarter. That allowed Middlesex to take the 1st 24-16 as Birmingham tried to keep up.
With Krasauskas taking a back seat in the 2nd quarter, it was the turn of Tadas Bagdonas to step to the fore. With Birmingham continuing to toil, shooting just 4/22 from the floor in the quarter, Bagdonas had no such issues. 14 personal points helped Middlesex establish a healthy half time lead at 40-28.
Birmingham weren’t going to give up though. Seeing that the 8 man Middlesex roster was a 6-man rotation with Petravicius and Vytuvis being used sparingly, LTBC were always going to tire. The game then became a question of how long the D3 South winners could last and if they’d have enough in the tank to see off a youthful Birmingham team in the 2nd half. The answer to that question appeared to have been found in the 3rd quarter when Birmingham came roaring back from 14 down to trail by just 5 with 10 minutes to go. Sharing the load on offence, the West Midlands side had just 1 player on 10 points after 30 minutes, but 8 different players had troubled the scorers.
48-36 Middlesex late in the 3rd became 49-49 with 8 minutes to go as both sides were being boosted by a deafening level of support from the stands. That 13-1 run had changed the game entirely and with a leggy LTBC team on the ropes, it seemed a matter of time before the Elite pulled away. Instead, Middlesex dug deep and refused to fall away. Both teams traded blows with nobody sure which way the contest would go. With 7 lead changes in the final 10 minutes alone, each basket was greeted by a deafening roar.
When Krasauskas hit a basket inside with 90 seconds to go, a 4-point lead for Middlesex looked like it may be enough at that stage, but Birmingham’s Janis Steda hit a short shot of his own, getting fouled in the process before dusting himself off to sink the and-1. From there, 56 agonising seconds passed with without a basket. Unfortunately for Birmingham, that stalemate was ended by the final buzzer and Middlesex were the ones heading home victorious. Dejected Birmingham players littered the court as LTBC celebrated, a stark contrast in emotions that sport is so impressive at creating. In reality, both teams had a lot to be proud of in a spectacle that should be remembered for a long time to come.
All images courtesy of Mansoor Ahmed/AhmedPhotos