Standing (left to right): Derek Browning, Jason LeGoff, Masai Ujiri, Mark Scott, Bob Glanville, Ben Peacock, Neil Smith, Alan Cunningham, Joe Morant, Panji Grainger, Tom Mahood
Over the summer period, the club looked to strengthen its squad. Having already lost Jon Rumsey through injury in rmid-season, another blow was dealt when Mark Scott also went down with a long-term knee injury. The other losses to the team consisted mainly of bench players, and coach Alan Cunningham and the backroom staff began the process of getting together a squad that could play in Division One of the National League.
The first signing, Roy Lewis, needed no introduction to the fans. Lewis, who already had an illustrious career with Solent behind him, came back to the club after a year with the Southampton Trailblazers. A former England international, 6' 6" Panji Grainger, moved into the area and was quickly sought by Colin Irish with whom Grainger had played at Manchester Giants. Although Grainger was a bit 'ring rusty' - having not played for a couple of seasons whilst completing his Masters degree - his experience and ability was not in question. Two further signings were James Gibbons and Tom Mahood, both students at Southampton Institute and they were joined by local youngster Neil Smith who had impressed in trial matches.
With Colin Irish, Panji Grainger and Jason LeGoff all still absent on holiday, Solent Stars made short shrift of Bournemouth Dolphins in the second annual Radio Solent Trophy game. Eight of the Solent players scored into double figures as Solent overran Bournemouth 104 - 71.
A further player bonus came Solent's way in the week preceding the opening league match, when the return of Masai Ujiri was announced. Ujiri had missed the end of the previous season when he had been snapped up by a Belgian club to help them in their end-of-season league programme. Despite several offers from European clubs, Ujiri felt that he wanted to return to the Solent fold.
The first league game of the season was a home match against Stevenage Rebels. Stevenage had finished third in the league last season and would prove a stern test, especially as Solent were still without Colin Irish, who was away on family business. The lead changed hands several times in the first half and Solent were only one point ahead at the halftime interval. The game continued to be fast, furious and close until a spell where Alan Cunningham and Masai Ujiri were instrumental in outscoring Stevenage 24 - 5 in a searing six-minute second half spell. Solent won their first home league game 91 - 79 (Cunningham 29, Ujiri 27).
With Panji Grainger still feeling his way back into the rough and tumble of top-flight basketball and still no Colin Irish available, it was left to the charismatic Alan Cunningham to hold the team together. This was never better demonstrated than in Solent's second home league fixture, against Cardiff Phoenix. The 44-year-old player/coach had heavy strapping on a knee ligament injury when he took the court for what eventually proved a 40-minute outing. Solent trailed 34 - 46 at halftime and never looked in the game. It was not until six minutes from the end when Cunningham (2) and James Gibbons landed back-to-back three pointers, that Solent went ahead for the first time. They held their nerve and closed the game at 79 - 73 for a second league win (Cunningham 26).
Solent's first road trip was to play Guildford Pumas. Alan Cunningham was still suffering with a knee problem, and there was no Colin Irish. Solent trailed 40 - 50 at halftime but had kept in touch with the home team in the second half before a last minute incident saw Cunningham called for his fifth foul and Solent's impetus was lost. So, too, was their unbeaten record as, for the first time in eleven months, Solent lost a league game, 92 - 106 (Ujiri 23, Cunningham 22, Gibbons 21).
Another away game followed when Solent visited Solihull Chiefs. With Alan Cunningham sidelined - although he did come on for the last four minutes - and captain Joe Morant out injured, Solent found it hard going and quickly fell 10 - 26 in arrears. A determined fight back followed and a three pointer by James Gibbons took Solent to a 33 - 31 lead. However, the team did not have the strength in depth to withstand the Solihull onslaught and eventually went down 56 - 62 in a very low scoring game.
A break from league action followed when Solent played Taunton Tigers in the National Trophy competition. The game marked the return of Colin Irish and a first for new signing, Paul Mundy-Castle. Solent's injury list - including Alan Cunningham - had reached desperate proportions and the acquisition of Mundy-Castle was timely for the club. However, the new players had little time to blend with the rest of the squad and it was particularly noticeable against the well-organised Taunton team, who were to finish runners-up in Division Two later in the season. With no Cunningham nor Bob Glanville to shore up the defence, Solent lost too many boards. This coupled with poor shot selection led to Solent's cup exit as they went down 78 - 85.
"We are missing four of our squad that picked up silverware last season, and it will take time for the new team to gel," explained coach Alan Cunningham prior to Solent's next home fixture, against Mid-Sussex Magic. Cunningham decided to kit-up for the game, despite carrying his knee injury still. He gave himself a ten-minute spell in the first half to help consolidate the early lead that Solent had built up. Subsequently with Colin Irish dictating play all over the court and 'flu stricken Panji Grainger being very effective, he felt he was not needed again as Solent cruised to a welcome 91 - 75 win (Ujiri 24).
A friendly against Thames Valley Tigers B followed, which was used to help several players back to match fitness and to give a trial to Carter Perryman, an American forward. Although Perryman impressed, no move was made to sign him following Solent's 91 - 55 win (Grainger 22).
Panji Grainger (far left) and Masai Ujiri (far right)
Westminster Warriors were the next visitors to Fleming Park for a league game. Solent, despite their efforts, still had a potential seven team players on the injured list. Only eight places were occupied on the home bench for the game, and one of those was Alan Cunningham. Masai Ujiri had turned an ankle in training and it remained to be seen who would take up the scoring mantle. It proved to be Colin Irish, who stole the show with his 34 points and all round court presence. Westminster could not find any answer to the Irish problem and Solent convincingly won 98 - 65.
A visit to Wembley Arena to play the unbeaten London Towers B followed. Already reduced to nine fit players from their seventeen strong squad, Solent were dealt a further crushing blow when Neil Smith limped off with a twisted ankle having started brightly with six points in the first six minutes of the game. Undeterred, Solent built on their early advantage to lead 51 - 34 at halftime. Towers hit back with a flurry of three pointers to narrow the gap to 54 - 44 as Panji Grainger picked up his fourth foul. Paul Mundy-Castle was ejected from the game after some pushing and shoving. From leading 62 - 54, Solent's lead was reduced to four points before Cunningham called a timeout to give his team some much needed breathing space. Solent immediately restored their eight-point cushion before Tom Mahood fell awkwardly and was taken off to hospital, leaving Solent with only Ben Peacock on the bench. The stickiness of the situation brought out the best in Solent when Irish stole the ball and set up Roy Lewis who stretched Solent's lead. Irish joined Grainger on four fouls, but two cleverly used timeouts by coach Cunningham helped Solent pace themselves to their first away league win of the season, 90 - 83 (Cunningham 30).
Brixton Topcats were Solent's next visitors in the league programme. With Tom Mahood and Neil Smith both reckoned to be out of action for some time, it was fortuitous for Solent that the game saw the return of Mark Scott after a 12-week absence with knee problems. Although no match for the fast running Brixton outfit, Mark's experience carried him through a very effective comeback, notching 14 points and many rebounds. With Colin Irish in one of his long shooting moods, Solent built up an unassailable lead early in the game and were in no mood to let the visitors back into the game. Another league win for Solent, 89 - 71 (Irish 27) saw them climb further up the league table.
Another signing was made prior to Solent's next home game against Cardiff Clippers. Eddie Owusu from Brixton joined his compatriot Paul Mundy-Castle in the Solent line up. Cardiff Clippers trailed from the start to the end of the game once Solent had opened up a 21 - 4 early lead but one incident will be remembered long after the game is forgotten. There had been several niggling exchanges between Cardiff's American Todd McNeill and several of the Solent squad. With six minutes remaining, Alan Cunningham took a rebound and sent the ball up court for a fast break. An incident then occurred between Cunningham and McNeill which led to them both being disqualified after an on-court melee that included several bench players from the Solent team - in front of which the incident had happened. The game was held up for five minutes for the situation to be sorted out and on the resumption Panji Grainger was the only player from the bench to be allowed on court. Solent held their nerve to win 106 - 90, but had to think of the consequences of the evening's dispute.
A disastrous opening that saw Solent trailing 8 - 32 by the ninth minute was the feature of the visit to play Plymouth Raiders in mid-December. By then, coach Alan Cunningham had already used both his timeouts as he strove to get more out of his team. For once Colin Irish's outside shooting form deserted him as, in front of 1,000 screaming home fans, Plymouth were able to put away ten three pointers in a first half that saw them into a comfortable 35 - 56 lead. It was a different story in the second half, when Plymouth were only able to add one more three pointer as Solent whittled down the home team's lead to seven points (77 - 84). In the end, Solent lost by nine (80 - 89) having retrieved the situation somewhat, for what was going to prove a vital return game later in the season.
The lesson of the poor start did not seem to have been learned when Solent faced their next opponents, Teesside Mohawks, at Fleming Park for the last match of the 1998 calendar year. Once again, an indifferent first half display saw Solent fall 28 - 38 behind by halftime. When Teeside then opened the second half with three consecutive three pointers to move into a seventeen point lead, Alan Cunningham was quick to call a timeout. The result was better defending, better shot selection and a gradual narrowing of the points difference. A Mark Scott 3 pointer, after a Cunningham block, put Solent into a 66 - 63 lead with a couple of minutes remaining. The last minute began with both teams on 70 points, but two Panji Grainger free throws, a steal by Colin Irish and a basket by Paul Mundy-Castle broke the Teesside resistance. Two coach technical fouls helped Solent to their final winning tally of 79 - 70 (Irish 26), to bring the curtain down on a successful year at Fleming Park.
Alan Cunningham's punishment for his actions in the Cardiff game was a four-match ban, which meant he could not play in the away Coventry fixture that began the new year. Solent were able to win this close game 79 - 75 without unduly exerting themselves. In fact, so disappointed with Paul Mundy-Castle was the coach, that he kept him on the bench for a good proportion of the game.
The return match with Guildford Pumas was Solent's first home game of 1999. A fast paced first half ended 42 all with Solent matching the current league leaders basket for basket. Then, in front of the biggest crowd of the season, a series of misfortunes saw Solent lose Masai Ujiri early in the second half with a twisted ankle. Added to this, Panji Grainger and Colin Irish were both called for their fourth fouls early in the half. Solent trailed by three points with two minutes remaining as Colin Irish picked up his fifth foul. Solent lost their intensity and eventually lost 80 - 90 to drop to third position in the league table, four points behind Guildford Pumas.
A visit to Stevenage Rebels followed with Solent unable to play their two leading point scorers, Alan Cunningham and Masai Ujiri. In an atmosphere-less arena, with a spectator following of less than 100, Solent put on one of their most prolific displays, scoring a season high total in their easy 94 - 70 win (Irish 23, Grainger 22).
Another main player was missing for the next road trip to Cardiff Phoenix. This time is was Eddie Owusu, banned for three games by the National Association, for transfer irregularities, when Owusu had signed in place of the club secretary in the faxed transfer papers. With Panji Grainger winning nearly every loose ball, Solent were given ample opportunity to use the possession gained. Colin Irish was in red-hot shooting form (38 points in all) and Paul Mundy-Castle's pace left Cardiff for dead on several occasions. One feature of the game was that in a five-minute spell, 25 free throws were awarded as foul followed foul. Solent shaded that total 14 - 11, and also won the game 100 - 90 (Irish 38, Mundy-Castle 23, Grainger 23).
Alan Cunningham returned for the next home match, against lowly Solihull Chiefs. Having cruised to a 19 - 8 lead by the sixth minute, they lost their way when they introduced young trio Tom Mahood, Neil Smith and Jason LeGoff. By the time Cunningham introduced himself into the game, Solent trailed 25 - 29. An indifferent start to the second half soon plunged Solent back into arrears and their headache intensified when Panji Grainger bowed out with a knee injury after falling and clattering into the backboard support. Solent gradually edged their way back into the game, but were relieved when, with one second remaining, the final three point attempt from Solihull hit the ring and Solent came home 77 - 75 winners (Irish 23).
A trip to Westminster Warriors could have proved costly bearing in mind Solent were without Colin Irish (knee), Jason LeGoff, Ben Peacock, Neil Smith (all injured) and Eddie Owusu (suspended). When Panji Grainger bowed out with a thumb injury early in the second half, Solent needed all their bench strength to pull through. Fortunately, Bob Glanville, in particular, was up to the task and Solent strolled to a comparatively easy 97 - 73 win.
The next home game turned out to be a gripping fixture against fellow championship hopefuls, London Towers B. The drama was packed into the last seven seconds of the game when Solent - who had led 79 - 73 with 80 seconds remaining - had been pegged back to 79 - 77 and faced two free throws following a foul by Eddie Owusu. Revitalised by a timeout, Solent urged the near capacity crowd to scream the house down as Steve Ogunjimi stepped up to the line. His first shot went in, but the cauldron-like atmosphere got to him with the second and Mark Scott was conveniently fouled as he collected the rebound. Scott himself missed one of his two free throws, Towers broke quickly and Mike Redd's three point rescue attempt failed on the buzzer, ensuring the injury hit Solent Stars the most crucial of victories, 80 - 78 (Cunningham 21).
Pictures from a charity game that included - amongst others - athlete Iwan Thomas, sailor Ben Ainslie and ski-jumper Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards
On the next day Solent travelled to play Mid-Sussex Magic at Haywards Heath. With 53 seconds remaining, the home team player, Ade Orelaja, was charged with a foul on Alan Cunningham. Orelaja, who had fallen to the floor, stood up to reveal a large gash under his eye which he claimed had been caused by Cunningham's elbow. Orelaja had to be restrained and removed from the court, but even then he broke free and made for Alan Cunningham. Luckily the match officials and his own team-mates were able to intervene and he was disqualified from the game. The chaotic scenes marred an inspired performance from Solent - and in particular from Paul Mundy-Castle who scored his highest tally of the season plus providing umpteen assists for his colleagues. Solent went on to record a 102 - 86 win (Mundy-Castle 40).
With Panji Grainger (cracked thumb) and Colin Irish (knee) still missing, Solent travelled as league leaders to play lowly Brixton Topcats, who had only amassed two league wins. As so often happens in such encounters, Solent could not impose their will on the game and found themselves trailing by 14 points at one stage in the first half. And but for the steady and consistent scoring of ever-reliable Mark Scott, Solent might have been even further behind. Eventually another fine performance by Paul Mundy-Castle, ably assisted by Masai Ujiri, pulled the game around for the visitors. Solent were never less than nine points ahead for the closing stages of the game and won 107 - 96 (Mundy-Castle 27, Scott 25).
Coventry Crusaders were the next visitors to Fleming Park and provided a stern test for the home team. Alan Cunningham missed an easy lay-up with just one minute to go and Solent leading 87 - 84. Coventry then went to the free throw line and Cunningham made amends by grabbing Jim Smith's second shot which failed to find the target. He scored two more points for Solent and added three more when Solent took advantage of Smith's missed three point attempt. 93 - 85 looked a far more comfortable win than had actually been the case (Mundy-Castle 26, Cunningham 22).
A potentially awkward trip to Cardiff Clippers was the next Solent fixture. With memories of the earlier game - when Alan Cunningham and Todd McNeill had both received four match bans - Cunningham was at pains to point out that all was forgotten and the match would need to be won with both players taking a full part. Solent were at full strength for the first time for several months, although Colin Irish and Panji Grainger were not used in the starting five. As if to prove his point about winning the game on-court, Cunningham scored the opening basket and followed that by a long successful three pointer. Mark Scott was given the job of man marking McNeill and so successful was he that McNeill had picked up four fouls just after halftime, mainly through frustration. He sat out a good part of the second half as Solent began to pile on the pressure to bring them a most convincing win, 116 - 89 (Irish 24, Mundy-Castle 21).
Excitement mounted as the next home game approached. Both Plymouth Raiders and Solent Stars were locked together with identical won - loss records at the top of the National League Division One, but Plymouth held the trump card of an 80 - 89 win earlier in the season at Plymouth. The Devonshire team arrived as league leaders, but they left with bruised egos and simmering anger about a bizarre first half incident which could cost them the title. With temperatures rising on and off the court, one of Plymouth's noisy travelling fans sprang out of his seat, burst through the bench area and dived onto the court in protest at a refereeing decision. Amid the mayhem, the referee signalled a technical foul against Plymouth and Paul Mundy-Castle broke off from his running battle with Raiders' Danny James and coolly sank the two free throws, helping the Stars back on track from an early six-point deficit. Had Plymouth gone on to win, the incident would probably have been forgotten but, significantly, the two points could prove vital to Stars' championship hopes. Having lost by nine points in Plymouth, Solent needed a victory of ten points or more to ensure an aggregate advantage. In a nerve tingling finale that had the 904 spectators on the edge of their seats, Plymouth missed four successive three point attempts before Alan Cunningham scored right on the final buzzer to clinch the all-important eleven point win 99 - 88 (Irish 28, Cunningham 26). Plymouth later decided to enter a protest that Solent's stewarding should not have allowed the court incursion - but this was thrown out by the England Basketball authorities.
Solent were hoping to tie up the league championship in their next game, which was the long trip to Teesside Mohawks. Solent started brightly enough and led 24 - 21 by the twelfth minute. But in a half punctuated by missed Solent lay-ups, it was the home team who came out on top to lead 36 - 41. Three quick baskets at the start of the second half by Teesside left Solent eleven points in arrears. It wasn't until the fifth minute of the second half that Paul Mundy-Castle sank Solent's first three pointer. Only Mark Scott distinguished himself in the game and his three consecutive three pointers kept Solent in touch at 76 - 77. Solent even managed to grab a three-point lead with points from Panji Grainger and Mundy-Castle, but Teesside got back on top to lead by two points before both Colin Irish and Alan Cunningham missed chances to take the game into overtime and Solent lost 82 - 84 (Mundy-Castle 24).
Just before the final home game, against Oxford Devils, Solent received news that the Plymouth appeal had now been made to FIBA, the governing body of European Basketball. The crux of the Plymouth protest was that it was wrong to punish the team for the behaviour of a supporter and that it was "crucial in determining the final score and therefore the destination of the league championship". FIBA however were quick to reject the protest, thus leaving the way clear for Solent to win the league if they could overcome their final opponents of the league season.
A full capacity crowd of nearly 800, with many turned away on the night, were in attendance as Solent entered the court for their final league game against Oxford Devils. The start was delayed for fifteen minutes to allow everyone to get in, but once underway, Solent showed that they were not going to be denied one of their finest hours. By halftime the team led 64 - 45. All ten Solent players got on the scoresheet as the score continued to mount. Finally, to thunderous applause, Solent closed the game as winners with their highest score of the season, 124 - 92 (Cunningham 21, Owusu 21).
Paul Mundy-Castle lifted the Player of the Year trophy ahead of Colin Irish who was runner up. The Players' Player of the Year went to Mark Scott.
The team are presented with the league trophy
The quarter-final of the play-offs pitted Solent at home against eighth placed Coventry Crusaders. Panji Grainger and Colin Irish were left on the bench for the start of the game, but they were soon brought on and making their presence count as Solent put together 19 points on the bounce to go into a 21 - 10 lead. From then on the sides more or less matched shot for shot in a fast, frenetic and physical game. Only when Solent's frustration at the lack of officials' calls surfaced did the lead slip. When this happened, invariably someone popped up with an important score to restore the lead. None were more important in this way than those of Grainger's and Paul Mundy-Castle's in the final minute to secure a win, 84 - 74 (Cunningham 24, Irish 22).
Alan Cunningham with the league trophy
Coach Alan Cunningham had words of warning to the press prior to Solent's home semi-final play off against Teesside Mohawks for the league championship. "My biggest worry is that our young guys could go into the game thinking that the season's over because they have already won the league," he said. Unfortunately for Solent his words proved to be prophetic. Too many of the home team were unable to find their form. Player of the Year, Paul Mundy-Castle, could only contribute two points as shots that had been going in all season simply refused to drop. Solent also found themselves cleaned out on the boards as Teesside's much greater height paid dividends time and time again. Only Cunningham himself managed to keep Solent in the game in the first half with a personal haul of 24 points. However, eventually he himself had to bow to the inevitable, as Solent crashed to a 92 - 113 defeat (Cunningham 41, Irish 20).
The club could look back, nevertheless, on a very successful season having won the Division One title and brought large crowds back to Fleming Park.
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