BASKETBALL: Leopards’ player-coach Robert Youngblood is facing a fitness battle as his side go into arguably their biggest weekend of the season.
Youngblood played only limited minutes in the weekend double header in Yorkshire and was clearly struggling with a hamstring injury.
The Big Cats will look to reach their third final in 13 months when they travel to Hemel Storm in the National Trophy semi-final on Saturday before Team Northumbria visit the Brentwood Centre on Sunday (4pm).
It will be the third time that Leopards have faced newly promoted Storm this season, and have won both of the previous games.
The teams met in Hertfordshire in the Trophy group stage in October, and in arguably their best performance of the season 24 Greg Hernandez points led them to an 81-61 victory.
They also played in a Division One game in November, with Taner Adu scoring 14 and Carl Josey 13 as Youngblood’s side won 79-59 at home.
Hemel are two places behind Leopards in eighth spot having split their first 12 games in the top flight. The other semi-final sees Tees Valley Mohawks host Bristol Academy Flyers, with the final taking place in Leicester on Saturday February 23.
Sunday’s opponents are also in first season in Division One, and are the nursery club of BBL champions Newcastle Eagles. They have made a good start to the season, and are fourth with a 9-3 record and have games in hand over all the teams above them.
It will be the first time that the two clubs have met with a big crowd expected at the Brentwood Centre.
Leopards head into the semi-final after splitting their pair of games over the weekend, winning 79-71 at Bradford Dragons on Saturday before suffering a 74-68 loss at Leeds Carnegie the following afternoon.
A strong second half proved key at Bradford as Adu led the way with 21 points, and Hernandez and Josey each adding 17 points.
A comfortable win had looked on the cards as Adu hit five points in an 11-2 start, and the visitors went into the first break with a 23-13 lead as Adu twice drained from long range.
But the second quarter saw the hosts firing on all cylinders as they outscored the Leopards 20-11 but it was the Big Cats who went into the locker room with a one point lead as Dan Dunscombe beat the buzzer with a dunk.
Only Adu troubled the scorer for Leopards in the first four minutes of the second half as Dragons opened with a 10-2 run.
But Josey caught first from downtown, hitting three three-pointers, and with Hernandez also scoring from long-range, they regained the initiative before a pair of Adu free-throws sent them into the final break 58-54 ahead.
Josey opened the fourth period scoring, and Leopards only briefly trailed before Simon Cummings sparked a 7-0 run to clinch the game.
Adu again led the scoring the following day, finishing with 22 points – including three straight treys in the third period – while Hernandez and Cummings scored 13 apiece.
The Big Cats extended a 20-17 first period lead to 43-39 at half-time, but with Youngblood clearly struggling and some close calls going against the visitors, Leeds took control with an 18-12 third period and closed out the win down the stretch. The results leave Leopards in sixth place with a 7-6 record.
l West Ham United and England legend Tony Cottee will be at Brentwood when the Big Cats host Team Northumbria on Sunday, February 10.
The 47-year-old will be promoting his new book, West Ham The Inside Story, as well as watching the Leopards in action.
Cottee scored 115 goals in 279 league appearances for the Hammers,also scoring 72 goals in 184 games for Everton. He gained seven full and eight under-21 caps for England.
Leopards versus Team Northumbria tips off at 4pm.