Plymouth Raiders fans got to see their 2018/19 team in action for the first time this weekend when the team faced Team Solent Kestrels and Thames Valley Cavaliers in pre-season friendlies at the Plymouth Pavilions.
The squad this season features a mix of returning players from last season, returnees from previous seasons and a few new faces to Plymouth, and along with new Head Coach Paul James, assistant Danny Magee and returning Dan Stevens, the team hope to end the drought of not making the play-offs since the 2012/13 season.
On Friday night, the Raiders hosted NBL Division One side Team Solent Kestrels who finished second in the league last year, narrowly missing out on the title on point’s difference, however they did pick up silverware in the form of the NBL National Trophy, winning the competition in February. Raiders started the game with returning captain Zak Wells, Australian Josh Wilcher who re-joined the club following a couple of seasons away, new Americans Jamal Williams and Javis Howard and another new player in the form of Australian guard Declan Soukup. On the bench for the Raiders were a couple more returnees from last season, Denzel Ubiaro and Joonas Järveläinen along with Tola Okiki who joined the club in the summer from NBL Division Two side Ipswich and another former player, Donte Nicholas who kitted up having only arrived in the country several hours earlier. The fans were unable to see new signing Shawn Shelton in action after he picked up a knock in training and watched from the bench.
After both sides traded baskets early on, the Kestrels made an 11 – 0 run mid-way through the first period before the home side closed the gap, but trailed 13 – 20 after the first 10 minutes. A solid defensive performance from the Raiders in the second period saw them hold the visitors to nine points, whilst scoring double that themselves to give them a slender 31 – 29 lead heading into the locker room at half time. With the score remaining close mid-way through the third quarter, Raiders stepped up putting together a 20 – 0 run stretching the lead to 69 – 47 with a little over seven minutes remaining in the game. The home side maintained the lead, running out victorious with the final sore being 85 – 59. Jet lag doesn’t apply to Donte Nicholas as he led the team with a double-double 24 points and 10 rebound game and was supported by Järveläinen who had 22 points and 7 rebounds.
On Saturday, the Raiders faced Thames Valley Cavaliers who have just been promoted to NBL Division One after having several successful seasons in lower divisions, picking up multiple trophies in their relatively short history. The Cavaliers were a change to the planned opposition the Raiders were expecting, following CEP Lorient informing the club a little over 24 hours before the game that they would not be travelling as they had not boarded the ferry in Roscoff.
Coach James made one change to the starting line-up, replacing Soukup with Nicholas following his MVP performance less than 24 hours earlier. Thames Valley opened the scoring with five points before a 17 – 2 run put the Raiders ten ahead mid-way through the first quarter which they stretched to 13, 28 – 15 at the end of the first ten minutes. The second period was a much more even affair with the home side increasing the lead to 53 – 38 at the half. The second half saw Thames Valley reduce the deficit to single digits but again Raiders stepped up to stretch the lead to 19, 78 – 59 with ten minutes to play. Both sides continued to fight to the end with Raiders scoring 100 points for the first time this season in the final minute, finishing winners 100 – 76. Adding to his 22 points against Solent, Järveläinen led the Raiders with 25 points and 11 rebounds. Also scoring in double figures were Javis Howard on 20, Jamal Williams on 13, Donte Nicholas with 12 and 11 assists for his second double-double of the weekend and Josh Wilcher with 10.
Raiders now have a week of training before going into their opening league game of the season away at Paul James’ former club Worcester Wolves on Friday night. The team return to the Pavilions on Sunday to face London Lions, with a new tip-off time for Sunday games of 15:00. Tickets for the game can be bought online from https://www.theticketstore.co.uk