ESSEX Leopards’ dreams of a second Division One play-off title in three years came to an end at the semi-final stage as they went down 72-62 against Leeds Carnegie on Saturday.
A depleted Big Cats’ side who were missing suspended player-coach Robert Youngblood and captain Carl Josey, whose father died just days earlier, never recovered from a poor third period, allowing Carnegie to progress to Sunday’s final where they narrowly defeated Division One champions Reading Rockets.
The Big Cats clearly missed the spark that Courtney Van Beest brings off the bench as he started in place of Josey and they could clearly have done with some court time from Youngblood as their big men suffered with foul trouble.
Howard Crawford led the Big Cats with 15 points, nine rebounds and three assists, with Andre Lockhart and Kris Clark each finishing with 14 points.
Clark added four boards and as many assists despite also getting into foul trouble but the club’s general manager Dave Ryan insisted it had been a frustrating day.
“It was disappointing” he said.
“Obviously we missed Carl, and our thoughts are with him and his family, because he is an important part of the team.
“Going into a vital game like this without a key player was a massive disadvantage and not having Robert coaching or available to play made a difference as well.
“But it’s been a successful season, finishing runners-up in the league and reaching two semi-finals is a real achievement.
“People seem to think that the level of success that we’ve achieved over the last four years comes easily, but it doesn’t.
“We have to scrape for every penny, if we had the kind of resources Leeds have, I’d expect at least two trophies each year.
“But we’ll have a bit of a rest, re-group and look to do even better next year.”
Crawford opened the scoring and provided Leopards’ first five points and they led for most of the period despite being forced to sit Shaun Durant down on two fouls.
Lawrence Brown put his side three up with two minutes of the period remaining and the seven footer sent the Big Cats into the first break 19-18 ahead.
Van Beest doubled the lead from the foul line to open the second period but the whole quarter was played within a four point range before a Crawford dunk gave Leopards a 35-34 half-time lead.
The damage was done in the third period as Leopards were out-scored 21-9, with a 7-0 run giving Carnegie a lead they would never relinquish and former Leopards Rowell Graham capping an 11-2 run to close out the quarter with a 55-44 lead.
A pair of Lockhart free-throws pulled the Big Cats within six with 5:37 on the clock. And Durant made it a five point game with as many minutes remaining, but that was as good as it got as Leopards’ season ended in disappointment.