Gavin Love: Raiders showed great character in victory over Heat
Plymouth Raiders...91 Surrey Heat...89
WELL, Gavin Love did warn he was going to shake things up.
Marjon Plymouth Raiders made two changes to their starting five against Surrey Heat in the BBL Championship – and had shooting-guard Michael Ojo playing point-guard come crunch-time and the final five minutes of a tense finale.
It all resulted in a rowdy, 91-89 win at the Pavilions on Saturday night.
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Raiders trailed by as many as six points, 66-60 late in the third quarter and by five, 83-78 in the middle of the fourth before finding the resolve and, crucially, the execution on offence to prevail.
Raiders boss Love said afterwards: "I don't think we've ever tried so many different line-ups in one game.
"We had a really small line-up and then we had a huge line-up. But going big helped us rebound the ball and get out and shut down their perimeter shooters.
"Our defence at times was excellent and at times was poor, but we got the job done and showed great character in the end."
Ojo said: "We've had a tough week in practice and we really wanted to put more focus on the defensive end tonight.
"That effort showed in spells tonight. Now we want to be more consistent with it.
"We had some peaks and troughs. Fortunately we pulled out the win."
Raiders centre Matt Schneck never looked like missing 2/2 free-throws with 2.5 seconds left in the fourth to make it 91-89 and seal the result.
Seconds earlier, Heat guard Albert Margai threatened to force overtime with an unlikely three from deep on the left wing over Drew Lasker to tie it up at 89-apiece.
Ojo was not willing to play an extra five minutes and immediately went for Heat's jugular on the counter-attack.
He found Schneck for company on the fast-break and Schneck was fouled at the rim by Heat's Frank Holmes, who did not like the call to say the least – neither did Heat boss Creon Raftopoulos, who angrily contested the call on court with the referees straight after the final buzzer. A pumped-up home crowd roundly booed him for doing so.
Raiders led by as many as 11, 28-17 after a 14-0 home run, which spanned the end of the first frame and start of the second.
Rookie forward Javarris Barnett – one of two players alongside forward Colin O'Reilly to make way for centre Andreas Schreiber and guard Lasker respectively in a new-look starting five – triggered it with a big three from the top of the arc.
Barnett then scored on the break on Ojo's assist before Ojo hit a three from the left wing and successfully attacked the basket over heavy Heat traffic at the start of the second.
Barnett capped the tear with 2/2 free-throws after being fouled by Heat forward and former Raider Sam Cricelli, who was 'outstanding', said Love.
Heat rallied and looked a lot sharper after half-time with a 13-3 response which tied it at 52-apiece early in the third. Cricelli scored five of the points.
Heat hit Raiders again with a 14-5 streak to lead 66-60. Cricelli was again instrumental with seven of the points.
Then came the turning point.
Margai missed 0/2 free-throws with 3:40 left in the fourth, which would have extended Heat's lead to four points, 85-81.
Instead, he found himself defending Ojo at the of the three-point arc. Ojo stepped back to give himself space and drilled a three over his man to put Raiders up by one, 84-83 and bring the house down after a flat first half.
Barnett next fearlessly buried a big shot over his man, Heat's Julius Joseph to make it 89-84 and push the gap to five points.
Barnett wheeled away celebrating back to the opposite end of the floor. Schreiber chased after him and gave him a big hug. Schneck was not long after and chest-bumped Barnett.
It was great to see, because the strain of a season, which has seen two unhappy stars – Anthony Rowe and Jeremy Bell – leave, was starting to show.
Players were barking at each other, at Love and Love was barking at players.
Raiders remain a team in transition following the additions of point-guard Rod Brown and Schreiber, a month ago, for Bell and Liam Potter respectively.
Are those signs of strain a big deal? Personally, I don't believe they are.
Let's have some perspective here, Raiders have lost some basketball games this season. No-one's died.
They remain an outside shout to win the play-offs in April. Bring it on. Professional sport can take itself so seriously sometimes.
Plymouth Argyle potentially falling out of the Football League this season for the first time in 93 years is serious; Raiders going through some growing pains this campaign, in my book, is not.
Ojo said: "We're still learning to play with each other and trust each other. A lot of the turnovers we had came on plays where we're still not as familiar as we could be.
"We're still working towards becoming a good finished product."
Ojo added: "Matt Schneck with those free-throws and Javarris with those big shots helped bring us home tonight. We just want to come together. We're still doing some good things."
Love said: "Javarris had a great game and shot the ball fantastically well from outside. That's what we've been talking about – other people stepping up.
"Javarris was brilliant. He came off the bench and gave us that spark we needed."
Scorers: Raiders: Ojo 31 points (12/21 field-goals), Barnett 24 (7/15), Schneck 10 (4/10), Brown 7 (3/6), Lasker 7 (3/6), Schreiber 6 (3/8), O'Reilly 6 (2/5); Surrey: Cricelli 26 (12/23), C Holmes 23 (7/13), Joseph 14 (4/11)
Leading rebounder: Raiders: Schneck 16; Surrey: F Holmes 12
Leader in assists: Raiders: Brown 6; Surrey: C Holmes/Cricelli 5
Field-Goal Percentage: Raiders: 48 per cent (34/71 attempts); Surrey: 50 per cent (33/66)
Three-Point Percentage: Raiders: 56 per cent (14/25attempts); Surrey: 40 per cent (8/20)
Free-Throw Percentage: Raiders: 100 per cent (9/9 attempts); Surrey: 68 per cent (15/22)