Leicester Riders head coach Rob Paternostro says beating the BBL champions London Lions in the play-off final would be one of the “biggest upsets in British sporting history”.
The two teams meet at London’s O2 Arena on Sunday in a repeat of last year’s final, which the The Runners won 78-75.
The Lions won the Championship by a record margin and beat Leicester in the BBL Cup final in January.
“Coming into this game, we are huge underdogs,” Paternostro said.
Sunday’s final will see the men’s and women’s teams from London and Leicester play each other, like they did on BBL Cup Finals day earlier this year when the Lions beat the Riders 95-42 to retain their WBBL Cup title.
The women’s final begins at 1:15 p.m. BST and the men’s match will follow at 4:15 p.m. BST.
For the Riders men’s team, it’s about trying to stem the rot against the Lions, who have beaten them five times in a row.
They are also the best-funded team with owners, US investment firm 777 Partners, pumping £7million into the league after purchase of a 45% stake in BBL in December 2021.
Paternostro thinks the match is a typical “David and Goliath” encounter.
“It really is. Everyone in our league knows that this London team is well funded and has signed a lot of good players,” he told BBC Radio Leicester.
“But they put together a collection of stars and played some really good basketball.
“I think if we are able to do that, I think it will be one of the biggest upsets in British sporting history – our lads are excited and can’t wait to play.
“We knew how difficult it was going to be to win trophies with London in the league and what they are capable of.
“We did our best (in the games against them) but we didn’t succeed – but we have one more chance.”
Skipper of runners aiming to go out in style
The final also marks the end of the British career of Riders captain Darien Nelson-Henry, who is retiring after four years with the club.
The American striker said he is “proud to be called Rider” and knows he couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity for his departure.
“If you’re thinking of hanging them up, the last game you want to play is at the O2 Arena in front of a full house with a team you’ve been with for your whole British career,” said the 29-year-old. BBC Radio Leicester.
“I couldn’t have written it better myself. I can’t wait to end my UK career on a high – hopefully we can bow to this stuff by winning the Championship.”
Nelson-Henry says the Lions are “setting the tone” in the British game and hopes the Riders can “follow suit”.
“A lot of leagues struggle to keep it sustainable for players,” he said.
“A lot of guys want to get to the top positions and get paid as much as possible, and there are only limited positions where you can achieve that.
“I’ve been lucky throughout my career, I’ve had the chance to hold many positions in the different clubs I’ve been to.”
The final will see “hard basketball”
Nelson-Henry, who has played in Poland and Austria, thinks the BBL “have come a long way” and is “really excited to see where they are going”.
For now, though, it’s all about leaving the Riders on a good footing and he says the Lions will be formidable opponents on Sunday.
“You can expect tough basketball, that’s for sure,” he said.
“We play with an element of desperation – it’s our last game and we want to beat London and leave everything on the pitch.
“I know these guys will, not just because they’re dedicated to the Riders or to me in my last game, it’s because we’re all winners and that’s what we want to do – We are pleased.”
“It’s a worry when everything is perfect”
For the Lions, a first play-off title and a potential domestic treble lie ahead, and head coach Ryan Schmidt says his players are ready to make history.
“Those are the times we’re all competing for: playing the last game on the big stage. I don’t think you need to get the guys excited to play games like this,” he said. he told BBC Radio London.
“It wasn’t all easy. In our first game against Cheshire in the semi-finals, we didn’t play very well and sometimes you need those moments to get things back on track.
“It’s sometimes a concern when everything is perfect.”
Schmidt says the Lions “know what we’re getting” against the Riders, having faced them so many times this season, and is expecting a tough afternoon.
“We have faced them five times and we have succeeded against them,” he said.
“They are talented and deep and very well trained. It’s hard to beat the same team so many times. Every game has been a battle and I expect the same on Sunday.
“Looking at their semi-final against Bristol, I think they (Bristol) surprised a lot of people, but what blew Leicester away was that they have Championship pedigree.
“You look at the fourth quarter of this game, when it comes to those clutch moments where their players stepped up. They’ve been there before and done it and it shined.”
After concluding the Championship with a record six games remaining at the time, victory in the play-off final would give the men’s team a seventh trophy and a sixth in the past five seasons.
Schmidt says 2022-23 has been a “huge breakthrough season” for the club which has seen them become the first BBL team in 16 years to play in the EuroCup.
“It’s an honor to help develop the UK game and to represent BBL in Europe, it’s exciting,” he said.
“I think we’re just scratching the surface and laying the groundwork for what’s to come.”
Women Lions roar to unprecedented second quadruple
As with the men’s final, there’s a sense of deja vu about the women’s final as the conquering Lions look to make it happen another clean sweep of four national titles, beating the Riders to win the BBL Cup and BBL Trophy this season.
Their only defeat in their Championship-winning campaign – against Caledonia Gladiators in February – ended a record 52 win streak and Schmidt is full of admiration for what they have achieved as they chase a third consecutive win in dams and a ninth. trophy only three seasons.
“To see what they’re doing is just remarkable,” Schmidt said.
“Consistency of high-level performances, match in, game out. Our women’s team had a great season and want to top it off with the championship.”
The Runners, coached by Krumesh Patel, could win their first play-off title after losing back-to-back finals to the Sevenoaks Suns in 2018 and 2019.
An upset win on Sunday would deliver a fifth trophy and the first since their BBL Cup victory in 2021.