THE Essex Leopards swept into the National Trophy semi-final with a dominant 81-59 victory against Derby Trailblazers.
The Brentwood Centre crowd saw Robert Youngblood’s team produce arguably their best performance of the season as they led for all but 32 seconds of the game to set up a last four tie at Hemel Storm in February.
The Big Cats were 48-24 ahead at half-time and led by as many as 30 in the third period as Youngblood was able to give at least five minutes of court time to all 12 of his players and, despite starting the game, the Leopards’ coach was able to restrict his own playing time to 12 minutes.
Simon Cummings led the way for the Big Cats with 15 points, four rebounds, three assists and as many steals but it was Greg Hernandez who had the most impressive game with a 14 point, 13 rebound double-double, adding six assists and three steals.
Taner Adu added 13 points while England junior Rowell Graham continued his comeback from injury with seven points and three blocks.
Hernandez opened the scoring with a three point play, and although scores from Martyn Gayle and Jeff Smith briefly gave the visitors the lead, Leopards responded with a 13-2 lead capped by Cummings’ three-pointer and Lawrence Brown’s put-back sent them into the first break with a 24-14 lead.
Simon Allaway hit a three to cut the lead to seven at the start of the second period, but scores from Graham and Brown quickly put the lead back in double figures.
Cummings’ steal and assist to Tom Martin saw the lead go about the 20 mark with 75 first half seconds remaining before Cummings drained another three to send the Big Cats into the locker room with a 24 point lead.
Adu hit the first six points of the second half to effectively as the visitors were held scoreless for almost four minutes and the lead never dipped below 26 in the third quarter before Dan Dunscombe hit a free-throw to send the hosts into the final break with a 63-37 lead.
Youngblood was able to run his bench in the fourth period as Leopards’ lead never dipped below 24, and it was Martin who wrapped up the scoring as Leopards reached the Trophy semi-final four the fourth time in five seasons.
The Big Cats will look to continue that form when they travel to unbeaten Division One leaders Reading Rockets on Sunday.
After a surprisingly poor National Trophy campaign, the Berkshire club have reeled off 12 straight league victories.
But Leopards came closest to ending their perfect start to the league season when they forced overtime in December’s meeting in Basildon before losing 84-76.