'This season has been special' - but can Atiba Lyons and Sheffield Sharks continue it against Cheshire Phoenix

When starting centre Bennett Koch was ruled out of the British Basketball League first-round play-off series with Leicester Riders, Sheffield Sharks head coach Atiba Lyons was left to wonder ‘here we go again’.

Injuries to key men on the eve of their first-round contests in the previous two years had contributed to the Sharks losing the two-legged ties and their season ending early.

But this year, Lyons has assembled a deeper roster and hadn’t factored in just how powerful playing a deciding game three in their own building would be as they overcame a 1-0 deficit by winning on the road in Leicester on Saturday and then clinching the series back at a supercharged Canon Medical Arena less than 24 hours later.

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It was Sheffield’s first play-off tie win for five years, and although a big mental hurdle to overcome for a team that retains a lot more players year-to-year than most, Lyons was keen not to make too much of it.

Sheffield Sharks players on the bench celebrate their game three win over Leicester Riders (Picture: Adam Bates)Sheffield Sharks players on the bench celebrate their game three win over Leicester Riders (Picture: Adam Bates)
Sheffield Sharks players on the bench celebrate their game three win over Leicester Riders (Picture: Adam Bates)

“A little but not really,” he offered. “I think we’ve had some very unlucky circumstances in the way we’ve been knocked out the last couple of years, but going into this one with Bennett out I did think this is another unfortunate injury?

“But all week these guys were very focused, we played well in practice and you could just tell we were locked in.

“In a way I suppose it is a monkey off our back but every season is different, and this season has been special.”

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Part of the reason for that is their new building, the £14m Canon Medical Arena on the Olympic Legacy Park that was built by private investment and gives them a home to call their own after years of being tenants at Ponds Forge or the English Institute of Sport.

Sheffield Sharks head coach Atiba Lyons. (Picture: Tony Johnson)Sheffield Sharks head coach Atiba Lyons. (Picture: Tony Johnson)
Sheffield Sharks head coach Atiba Lyons. (Picture: Tony Johnson)

Days like Sunday when the noise in support of the team was non-stop, made all the years of lobbying for an arena of their own worthwhile.

“That atmosphere in that building was electric, it was a dream come true for us in that respect,” said Lyons, who is also a director of the club.

“We are just really proud of every element of the building, of the team, of the fans, and it’s always a proud moment when we’re in that building.

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“By the fourth quarter on Sunday you could see we had it comfortably won and it was a great feeling to know where we’ve come from, what we’ve overcome and the fact the guys have put in a lot of hard work to get here so I was really happy for them.”

Next comes the challenge of Cheshire Phoenix who finished second to the Sharks’ fourth in the regular season, and have already won the BBL Trophy this season.

Having carried the momentum of Prentiss Nixon’s buzzer-beater to win game two, into game three, Sharks now have to maintain that feelgood factor against a team who are known for their three-point shooting prowess.

“They’re prolific when they shoot the three-pointer but we have our style of play and we’ve got to implement that,” said Lyons ahead of game one in Cheshire on Friday night, with game two in Sheffield on Sunday (4.35pm).

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“We can’t change too much to combat what they’re going to do, we’ve just got to do what we do best.

“While Bennett is a big loss for us, a lot of other guys are getting healthy at the right time. We’ve been limping through the season at different positions for different reasons, but a lot of guys are getting healthy and playing their best basketball at the right time.”