Dame Elizabeth Cadbury Sports Hall – Sunday 22 March

With CoB under 13’s having made 2nd place in the Midland division, and that only due to a mid-season dip, it was time for business – the National League play-offs. Not a first for the club, or the under 13’s team, but a first for me (or my son at least – I can’t really claim much credit, basketball didn’t really run in my family.  Weightlifting and kabaddi were the games of choice for my ancestors, although looking at me, ‘jockey’ might be the first thing that comes to mind).

With four teams from each region making play offs, one could argue that we are in the top 16 in the country. However (with my over analytical thinking coming into play), only after seeing the first round of play-off matches, and getting an idea of each region’s strength, could we get a clearer picture of where they really lie.  Lose, and the top 16 argument would come under scrutiny; win, against a traditionally strong Sheffield Saints side, and a place in the last 8 nationally would be considered fully deserved, at the very least.

The spirits conspired for the match to be held on a Sunday, but luckily at a 1.15pm tip-off and not some of unearthly starts we endured earlier in the season.  The venue therefore was the Dame Elizabeth College sports hall, one that I had reservations about at the start of the season, with it’s tight packed perimeter and aged feel.  However, presumably as the team have become more familiar with it, some of their best performances have been witnessed here, whilst the various opponents remain intimidated by the setting.  In football terms, think of a visiting Galatasaray, in Istanbul – otherwise known simply as ‘Hell’.

And to further ramp up the pressure, club stalwart Matt Coles was on hand with his hooter (steady!) to gee up the faithful, after helping to administer a delicious spread for the spectators convenience, topped off by the late arrival of some “hot samosas” which he announced to tempt the masses.

The tense countdown to tip-off finally ended, but after a false start by the capacity crowd after the first ‘hoot’, first blood went to CoB.  Shekoni assisted Zavier and then came close with a 3-point attempt under pressure from the timer, before Sheffield bounced back with a 3 point play.  Whilst CoB had most of the play, some spurned free-throws meant the points gap never exceeded 4 points up until a minute and a half before the end of the first quarter, owing also to some missed 3 pointers.

However Zavier put that right late on, sinking from ‘downtown’, followed by another from Tyrese to take his personal tally into double figures and open up 10 point lead for the hosts. Sheffield then exchanged 2-pointers with Josh, turning some of his good early work into points, City of Birmingham going into the first break of this first knockout game with a healthy 24-16 advantage.

A similar performance in the 2nd quarter would see the job half done, and the boys were out of the blocks faster than in the first, with stoic defending and Josh, again, along with Callum and Shekoni combining to open up a 32-20 lead with just 3 minutes gone on the clock.  Dreams of the last eight may have entered their minds – but if so, they were to have a rude awakening.

The loss in concentration resulted in fouls, missed 3-pointers, and more fouls.  The Sharks showed their teeth with seven unanswered scores, seeing the lead being wiped out completely, CoB threatening to grab defeat from the Jaws of victory.  They finally stirred from their slumber, Tyrese stretching for a 3-pointer before a second assist from Darshan, brought on to add some defensive steel, allowed Tyrese again to showcase his ability to put the ball where it hurts.  A late miss and blocked shot however meant the teams went in separated by a single point, 39-38.

If CoB were going to progress to the National League quarter finals, they were going to have to win this again.

The false start this time was from the players, and Coach Lacey quickly called a time-out to issue a vocal reminder to the players of their responsibilities.

And Callum took responsibility, scoring again for a 4 point cushion, and then drawing a foul.  Tyrese continued, with a long range net-seeking missile, and Pharell pushed CoB to a nine point lead.  A failure to score in the last three minutes though, and some errors in this mentally draining encounter, threatened to undermine the hosts yet again.  But strong resistance (aided by the hooter and a crowd baying for defensive mettle) meant they held on to a hard earned, but far from comfortable lead going into the final period, 74-66.

The fourth quarter called for steel and presence of mind, and the guile and stamina of Callum and Shekoni came to the forefront.   Tyrese turned provider for the two seasoned campaigners to take some of the bite out the Sharks, to open up a 13 point lead by the second minute, and leaving coach Lacey purring.  Points were then exchanged between the Sharks and Tyrese, the margin being maintained, more or less, up to the penultimate minute.

Both teams scored and conceded, going toe to toe, but Sheffield were starting to run out of punch and were looking disconsolate.  (Seriously though – Sharks?  In Sheffield? That’s nearly as unlikely as seeing leftover samosas after a City of Birmingham basketball match.)

With Josh rebounding more as the game wore down, Shekoni and Callum had the final say before a flurry of late subs saw the match wind down and the celebrations ramp up. The Sharks were left to hammer their heads, leaving victory for the Great Whites and Reds. (He’s a poet and he didn’t know it!)

It finished 74-66, and more importantly, CoB join two other Midlands division teams in the last eight of the National League play-offs.  Officially, truly, amazing work from Birmingham!  London Feltham Warriors lie in wait next weekend – it should be good.