For the first away league game, at Coventry Crusaders, Colin Irish and Mark Scott were still not on call. Eddie Owusu signed in the week of the game, as did an ex-Solent Stars regular Mike Griffiths. They were joined by new signing Chris Blunt, a student at Southampton University, and Sasha Singaravaloo and Alan McDonald from the Junior ranks. Solent could only muster five senior players for the game and filled the bench with inexperienced players. Coventry, on the other hand, had played six pre-season games and had the look of a determined side. They quickly led with a series of three pointers, but were reined in when Cunningham replied in kind. Indeed, thanks to him and Panji Grainger, Solent held an unlikely 21 - 20 lead midway through the first half. By halftime Solent trailed 42 - 46 and were still in with a shout, but once the senior players tired there was little to counter the constant Coventry attacks. Eventually Solent lost their opening game 78 - 89 (Cunningham 28, Grainger 21).
Solent recruited heavily in the following week, starting with the arrival of American Toby Tripalin from Ohio. The 27-year-old 6' 4" forward came from Marycrest University, Iowa. He was joined in the squad by two local players, Sean Cameron and Kelvin Knight, a guard from the Worthing area.
Solent's first home opponents were another well-organised side, Plymouth Raiders. Inside the final quarter of the game, Solent were trailing by a huge margin, 45 - 74, as they tried to find a rhythm, with the players demonstrating a lack of practice together. Solent gradually got their act together and the final margin of 12 points (70 - 82) gave Alan Cunningham some cause for optimism. He had scored 21 points in the game.
Prior to the next match, Alan Cunningham was severely shaken in a car accident on the M27 and missed the practice sessions. However, he was present for the away game to Oxford Devils. Oxford led early on (9 - 17) before the Solent team began to hit the target and also prevent Oxford from firing off unguarded shots. A rare three pointer from Panji Grainger levelled the scores at 23 all. Trailing 40 - 43 at halftime, Solent hit back with eight unanswered points, six from Tripalin. They then stayed ahead for the whole of the second half to finally win 84 - 80 (Grainger 22) thanks in part to a good second half scoring display from Eddie Owusu.
Because Solent Stars had finished in the top three teams of the National League Division One they were automatically entered in two Basketball League competitions, the National Cup and the UniBall Trophy. Solent's first round National Cup opponents at Fleming Park were London Leopards. With far more Americans at their disposal, London Leopards were obviously going to be a force to be reckoned with. Solent plunged into the transfer market and signed 37-year-old Chris Harper from Cardiff Phoenix prior to the game and also welcomed back Colin Irish. Irish plundered 34 points in the game, but Solent were never going to be able to contain their illustrious opponents. The final score was 88 - 110 (Irish 34, Cunningham 20).
Another cup game followed at Fleming Park, this time a National Trophy game against second division side North London Lords. Alan Cunningham was ruled out through injury and Solent made heavy weather of the first half, leading only 44 - 43 at the interval. Whatever coach Cunningham said at halftime had the desired effect as Solent imposed themselves totally in the second half - denying London any points in the first five minutes - to win the game 95 - 75 (Irish 26, Grainger 23).
The following Thursday at Fleming Park, Solent entertained Derby Storm from the Basketball League in the first of the UniBall Trophy pool games. At first Derby, with their five American players, looked to be cruising along as they built up an eleven-point lead. But Derby's defence never looked secure and ten late points in the first half by Solent brought them to within one point. In the second half a virus-hit Colin Irish weighed in with some big shots before Chris Harper stole the show with a dazzling array of scoring that brought him a standing ovation from the supporters. In a breathtaking third quarter Solent rattled up 37 points to take them into a lead that a team with their experience would not surrender. This was the case and Solent Stars became the toast of the National League when they beat the team from the Basketball League 100 - 86 (Cunningham 32, Harper 29, Irish 21).
Solent's second UniBall Trophy game followed two days later with a trip to Birmingham Bullets. At first Solent held their own but they were hit by injuries to Colin Irish and Panji Grainger. They then had a disastrous period when seventeen points were conceded without reply. Eddie Owusu and Sasha Singaravaloo helped bring Solent back into the game, but eventually they went down 80 - 103 (Irish 25).
Mark Scott returned for Solent's next home fixture, a second round National Trophy tie with Sutton Pumas. His return was timely since Panji Grainger was out with back trouble. Alan Cunningham suffered both an Achilles heel injury and a chipped tooth in the game. Ten points ahead inside the final minute, Solent should have been coasting. Instead they conceded seven crazy points in almost as many seconds to find themselves only one shot ahead at 93 - 90. Colin Irish was then fouled and his two points from the free throw line steadied Solent and helped them to an eventual 97 - 93 win (Irish 34).
A second home defeat at the hands of London Leopards followed. Alan Cunningham was unable to start the game, troubled with his Achilles injury. Colin Irish and Chris Harper shot well early on to keep Solent in the game. When the Leopards coach was called for a technical foul, Irish's shots put Solent ahead midway through the first half. Unfortunately, that was as good as it got for Solent as they began to slip behind before bowing out to a 76 - 98 defeat (Irish 24, Harper 20).
The quarter-final home tie in the National Trophy was Solent's next game against Coventry Crusaders. All looked lost for the Solent team when the electronic scoreboard informed them that they had only four minutes left to make up a nine-point deficit. It wasn't the nine points that could prove the problem, it was stopping the Coventry team from scoring. The first inroad into the Coventry lead was made when Chris Harper scored one shot from the free throw line to take the score to 72 - 80. Alan Cunningham was then fouled in an 'unsportsmanlike' way giving Solent two shots and possession of the ball. Twenty seconds later, Colin Irish scored a big three pointer (77 - 80). Meanwhile Solent were successfully stopping Coventry shots and also gaining rebounds. Further baskets from Harper and Cunningham saw Solent edge ahead 81 - 80. Both teams then missed shots before Harper was fouled and scored one from two from the free throw line. Coventry needed a three pointer to win or two points to go to overtime. In the event, they went for the two and Derrick Pope was overjoyed to hit the target. His joy turned to grief, however, when the referees and table officials agreed that the shot had been taken fractionally after the sounding of the buzzer that ended the game. Solent were through to the semi-final, 82 - 80 (Irish 33).
The next game was a mid-week UniBall fixture at Derby Storm. Solent, with no full time players were always going to find it difficult to find players able to travel to Derby for a Wednesday evening fixture. To add to their problems, Alan Cunningham and Colin Irish were coaching at schools in Manchester during the week and Chris Harper was declared unfit with a knee injury. Solent only had six players at the tip-off time. Cunningham and Irish arrived just on 8pm after a mad dash from Manchester and the home team refused to put back the start time to allow them to be ready for the start. Solent's young team had no answer to the early succession of three point shots that rained down on them, and after a short time they trailed 21 - 40. The arrival of the experienced Solent players helped steady the ship, but Solent eventually lost 87 - 117.
The players are introduced to the Fleming Park crowd
The two final away games for Solent in the UniBall Trophy took place over the following weekend. On Saturday the team travelled to high-riding Birmingham Bullets. Chris Harper had recovered for this game and gave a good account of himself. However, the scoring honours were taken by Colin Irish with a haul of 48 points. Almost single-handedly in the scoring department he had kept Solent in touch with Birmingham throughout the game, although it was four consecutive three pointers by Yorrick Williams that gave Birmingham the safety cushion they needed for the second half. Solent's defeat, 98 - 106 (Irish 48, Harper 21) was a creditable performance.
A day later, Solent were in Brentwood, Essex meeting London Leopards. In an ill-tempered encounter Solent's hopes were dashed when coach Alan Cunningham was disqualified for a second technical foul, called for disputing an official's call. Although this match was part of the experiment when three referees were used, it was American official Steve Gottlieb who was the main protagonist. Already in two previous UniBall matches, Solent had complained of Gottleib's 'arrogance' in the official match referees report forms and it seemed that the official was going to have the last word! Cunningham's disqualification came just before halftime. Mark Scott gave a strong performance but could not prevent the team losing 67 - 115. Scott then shocked his colleagues by announcing his retirement.
After eight weeks of cup competitions, Solent could return to league action with a home match against Westminster Warriors. Coach Cunningham reckoned that, "The team has suffered a lot because of our UniBall involvement, not only in terms of injuries and tiredness but we have also fallen behind in our league programme." He himself was banned for the game as an automatic outcome of the London Leopards match. Cunningham had appealed against the original decision but, bizarrely, the appeal would not be heard until after the next game! Because Solent were now six matches behind most clubs, they were second from bottom in the league. Their opponents, Westminster, were at the foot of the table. Alan Cunningham was forced to watch the game from the balcony - because of his ban - and he was joined there by the visiting coach, Steve Alexander, who himself was serving out a one game ban! Solent, through Panji Grainger and Chris Harper, soon imposed themselves on the game and Solent built up an early lead. With Solent leading 71 - 63 at the end of the third quarter, the referees intervened to ask Alison Phillips, the stand-in Warriors coach, to remove an earpiece through which, it appeared, she was receiving instructions from Alexander on the Fleming Park balcony! Solent went on to record a win, 101 - 89 (Grainger 27).
The semi-final draw for the National Trophy took Solent to the Teesside Mohawks' arena in Middlesbrough. Anxious to avenge their earlier home defeat, Solent looked as if they had overreached themselves as they trudged off trailing at the interval 35 - 45. However, a spirited second half started by Tripalin's three pointer and Panji Grainger's inside shooting trimmed the lead to 46 - 49. Stars even chiselled out an eight-point lead before missed shots and turnovers whilst trying to run down the clock allowed Teesside off the hook. At full time the scores were level at 79 all. Chris Harper starred for Solent as three pointers were exchanged at the start of the overtime period. Teesside's better shooting took them to a three point lead with 20 seconds left. Colin Irish missed a free throw, then Harper got tangled in the corner as he attempted a three point shot that fell well short. Solent were defeated 87 - 90 (Cunningham 21).
Solent's next away league game was a very ill-tempered affair against Mid-Sussex Magic. With injuries to the squad reaching crisis point, Solent took along triallist Chris St. Omer to make up the legal minimum required for bench purposes. Magic's JR Alexander received his fifth foul in the last minute but was the cause of further confrontation after the final buzzer. This came after the game had been halted in the second half for Colin Irish to receive treatment for a cut lip in an off-the-ball incident between him and Alexander, following a long running feud between the two players. With no other option, coach Cunningham brought St. Omer onto the court for the two remaining minutes. Solent won the game 120 - 98 (Tripalin 36, Cunningham 20, Irish 20), but Mid-Sussex noted that St. Omer was not a registered player and immediately lodged a protest to the national association.
The Solent Stars club was honoured in the following week when it picked up the BBC South Sports Male Team of the Year award at a broadcast ceremony from the De Vere Hotel in Southampton.
For Solent's next home game, against Islington White Heat, Alan Cunningham was ruled out with 'flu. Mark Scott was a spectator at the game as was Mike Griffiths, who was missing his third game through injury. To add to the team's woes, Chris Harper came off court with the score at 70 all and seven minutes remaining and refused to take any more part in the game, maintaining that he was not satisfied with the attitude of several team members toward him. Luckily for Solent, 18-year-old Alan McDonald decided to come of age basketball-wise in the game and his free throws sparked a Solent revival that was finished off by a series of three pointers from Colin Irish. Solent won 96 - 81 (Grainger 26, Irish 25).
The final match of the calendar year was a trip to table-topping Teesside Mohawks. Teesside had won all ten of their league fixtures whilst Solent had lost two of their six played. Prior to the fixture, Chris Harper had sorted out his differences with the team and Alan Cunningham was able to welcome back Mark Scott, having managed to persuade him out of retirement. Cunningham also returned himself for the game and opened the scoring for Solent. Teesside immediately replied through a Jason Swaine three pointer. Swaine's scoring had been crucial in Teesside's three point cup win over Solent earlier in the season, but Solent were determined that there would be no repeat. Solent were finding it difficult to score themselves before a Tripalin three point attempt kick started the scoring. Colin Irish with another three pointer helped Solent along, but it was the defences that were on top in the first period. Scott retrieved the lead (14 - 13) for Solent in the eighth minute and from then on Solent were never in arrears in the game. Seven points clear approaching the last minute, Solent wrapped up the game when Teesside's Neil Hopper accumulated three penalty calls from one foul as frustration seeped into the home side. Roy Lewis promptly dispatched the free throws before sprinting clear, in an eight point final minute haul. Solent had ended Teesside's unbeaten run with a win, 80 - 66 (Irish 21).
Chris St Omer
Panji Grainger was still on holiday in Zambia when Solent travelled to Cardiff Clippers in early January. However, they were able to welcome back Mike Griffiths whose height and experience came in handy. Solent led almost throughout the whole game and turned a modest 50 - 42 halftime lead into a commanding 110 - 80 final margin (Irish 24, Harper 23, Cunningham 22).
Coventry Crusaders were the next visitors to Fleming Park. With no Mark Scott ('flu) it came as a blow when Alan Cunningham pulled a hamstring after just 23 seconds. With only Panji Grainger under the boards, Solent could have been in trouble from the big Coventry squad. A close game ensued with Solent usually having the upper hand until a series of Coventry three pointers hit the target towards the end of the game. Solent found themselves trailing 80 - 81 as Grainger bundled his way through to give Solent two more points. The large crowd was very noisy, no more so than when Coventry's leading scorer, Matt Donaldson, approached the free throw line with 30 seconds remaining after a foul by Alan Cunningham. Cunningham had, amazingly, brought himself back on - despite his hamstring injury which made movement difficult - to help Grainger with the defensive rebounds. Donaldson, possibly unnerved by the noise, missed one of his throws. It was left to a last dart through the surprised Coventry defence by Chris Harper to seal another famous victory for Solent, 84 - 82 (Harper 26, Irish 25).
Plymouth Raiders were Solent's next opponents. In front of a packed 1,300 supporters at the Pavilions, Plymouth, Solent had difficulty staying with the home team as they scored freely at the beginning of the game. Alan Cunningham decided not to use himself at the start of the game because he was still suffering from the hamstring injury. Instead Panji Grainger played a full part in finally stemming the run of Plymouth points and by halftime Solent trailed only 38 - 44. Grainger scored Solent's opening six points of the second half and Chris Harper then got into the act with eight points of his own. Finally, Cunningham announced his arrival on court with a long three pointer amid a Solent spell where they scored eleven unanswered points to go 77 - 67 up. Eventually, thanks to a last gasp three pointer from Plymouth the margin of their defeat was exactly the same as that of Solent's when Plymouth had been the visitors - twelve points. Solent came away with a 91 - 79 victory (Harper 27, Irish 26).
Solent's next visitors, Oxford Devils, provided a stern test for a Solent team that, on the night, just could not get any fluency in their play. Coach Alan Cunningham was forced, once again, to come into the game in the second half when he would have preferred to rest his injured leg. His presence helped Solent to an 83 - 76 win.
A similar performance followed when Solent visited Taunton Tigers at Millfield School. The team looked disjointed throughout and it wasn't until Chris Harper began demanding the ball in the second half that Solent were able to breathe more easily. Coach Alan Cunningham at least was able to rest his injured leg as he was not required in the game that Solent won 87 - 76 (Irish 27, Harper 20).
Sutton Pumas provided the next action at Fleming Park, including a post match incident that took the news headlines. The game was a close, bruising affair with many fouls called including several off the ball incidents. Sutton had built a 42 - 46 halftime lead in a game where the first half lead had changed hands ten times. Solent then turned the ball over three times in the opening minutes of the second half, prompting an early timeout. Stars responded with their best spell of the match to edge 70 - 69 ahead. It was nip and tuck from there on with important Solent baskets from Mark Scott. Sutton clawed back to 85 - 83 in the 19th minute, but Solent held on to win 88 - 83 (Harper 21, Irish 21). The match headlines came as Sutton's Roger Lloyd kicked through a reinforced glass panel in the corridor outside the visitor's changing room. Lloyd had run on to the court at the end of the game to remonstrate with referee Andrew Carey and only prompt action by Colin Irish, amongst others, prevented the situation from getting out of hand.
A barrage of outside shooting from Birmingham Bullets B made it tough going for Solent Stars at the National Exhibition Centre. The home team sank nine three point shots against just one from Colin Irish and were 26 - 34 ahead by the 16th minute. But Stars, aided by two technical fouls called on Birmingham, rallied to lead 44 - 40 early in the second half. By restricting the home team to just eight points in the last twelve minutes, Solent were able to win comfortably, 75 - 62 (Irish 21).
The next afternoon Solent were back on court at Fleming Park for the return match with Taunton Tigers. Coach Alan Cunningham did not arrive until mid-way through the first half, having mislaid his car keys. By then Solent were eleven points ahead. A Solent triumph was never in doubt once Taunton had been washed away under a torrent of Colin Irish three pointers. His sixth - and best - was unleashed when he was totally off-balance to put Solent 30 - 14 up. Taunton made later inroads, but Solent ran out eventual winners, 96 - 82 (Irish 38).
Birmingham Bullets B were the next visitors to Fleming Park. At one point pre-game it looked as if the game would not take place as Birmingham lodged a protest at the brightness of the Fleming Park TV lights that had been used for the last 19 seasons without complaint! The protest was withdrawn when Birmingham were informed that they would have to lodge a £100 fee. Solent were in no mood to show any mercy to the visitors after this inconvenience and with Alan Cunningham back in the starting five the match outcome was an inevitable 92 - 70 win (Irish 24) for Solent.
An awkward away trip to Westminster Warriors was next on the cards for Solent. The visitors took charge at the start of the game, but an astonishing display of long range shooting brought Westminster right back into it. Solent led 51 - 46 at the interval. A faulty scoreboard caused disruption at the start of the second half and seemed to affect Solent more than Westminster and the home team closed to within one point (58 - 57). The scoreboard packed up completely before the end of the game, leaving players and spectators completely in the dark as to what was happening. Solent lost Cunningham with a cut lip shortly before the end, but Solent were able to come through 95 - 89 (Irish 25, Grainger 20).
A tough weekend followed for Solent with visits to Worthing and Sutton. The situation was made worse by the fact that Colin Irish had flown off to Trinidad where his father was seriously ill. Worthing, like Solent, were unbeaten in the league since October. The match was delayed for 30 minutes because of the late arrival of referee David Turner. Once the game began, Solent took the early initiative and led 19 - 12 after eight minutes. Worthing Thunder began to fight back and a spell that included three big three pointers took them into a 32 - 39 lead. The second half was one where the lead changed hands many times as the excitement mounted. A last gasp shot by Chris Harper hit the ring but the ever reliable Mike Griffiths popped up to tip the ball in and level the scores (95 all) with just four seconds remaining. The five minutes of overtime to decide the match proved too much for Solent as Panji Grainger, Alan Cunningham and Mark Scott all fouled out. Solent's 15 match unbeaten run came to an end with this 104 - 116 (Harper 42, Grainger 22) defeat. After the game Panji Grainger was taken to hospital for treatment to a back spasm.
Only a few hours later and now without Grainger as well as Irish, Solent were on court again at Sutton Pumas. It spoke much for their team spirit that despite the previous evening's defeat and lack of key players, the team responded with a victory in this game. Both Tripalin and Alan McDonald showed up strongly in a first half that Solent led 39 - 38. With the score standing at 63 all and five minutes left to play, Alan Cunningham, Chris Harper and Tripalin were responsible for scoring ten unanswered points to all but win the match. In a foul-strewn final minute Eddie Owusu was disqualified for use of an elbow. Solent won 81 - 74 (Tripalin 21).
Solent had Panji Grainger back for the next home game against Mid-Sussex Magic. He managed to last until halftime before succumbing to his shoulder injury. By then Solent had suffered a barrage of successful three point shots from the visitors. Ten on target three point shots had put Mid-Sussex into a 40 - 43 lead, before Solent hit back to take a narrow halftime lead. Solent never trailed in the second half, in part because of the exceptional game played by Alan McDonald, who scored 22 second half points in Solent's 128 - 120 win (McDonald 26, Cunningham 23, Scott 21).
The next day, Solent were in Wales to play Cardiff Phoenix. Alan McDonald was promoted to the starting five after his previous evening's display. After building up a comfortable lead with his experienced squad, Alan Cunningham brought himself into the game with four of the bench players. From being well in control of events, Solent slipped to just a four point lead (87 - 83) with just 30 seconds left. In a hectic finish 12 more points were scored, with Chris Harper, Mike Griffiths and Cunningham all cashing in from the free throw line as Solent eventually won 94 - 88 (Harper 23, Scott 20).
The return match with Worthing Thunder was billed as a must-win game for Solent if they were to have any chance of holding onto their league champions status. What is more, the win would have to be by 13 points or more to overcome the 12-point defeat suffered in the earlier overtime game. An opening six points for Solent augured well, but it proved a false dawn as Worthing began to take charge of events. At one point Solent trailed by 21 points as they failed to contain 44 point Sean Hampton. A late fight back brought Solent to within eight points with just two minutes remaining. Ironically, Solent's second defeat at the hands of Worthing Thunder was by exactly the same margin that they had needed to win by - 13 points! (80 - 93).
After the frantic full-house action on the Saturday evening, Solent found themselves at the Hackney Space (sic) Centre on Sunday afternoon in front of a handful of spectators - most of whom had accompanied Solent. Islington White Heat, fifth in the league, were able to take advantage of Solent's earlier disappointment and went into a 13 - 31 lead. That signalled Alan Cunningham's introduction into the match, together with that of Colin Irish. That had the effect of turning the match around. Islington only managed one scoring shot in the last seven minutes of the first half which ended level at 33 all. Solent found it difficult to score at the start of the second half and when Panji Grainger limped off with a twisted ankle, they trailed 46 - 53. Towards the end of this close contest, a Cunningham score edged them to a 71 - 70 lead. Chris Harper then stole the ball twice to break through to the basket. On both occasions he was fouled and he calmly sank all the shots to help Solent to a 75 - 71 win.
Now having no chance of taking the league title, Solent faced the new league champions, Teesside Mohawks, at Fleming Park for their last league match of the season. Solent were below strength with Eddie Owusu (suspended), Colin Irish and Panji Grainger (injured) all missing. That did not seem to affect Solent as they raced into a 22 - 15 lead with Chris Harper plundering 12 of those points. However, by midway through the second half Solent had slipped 13 points into arrears. Alan Cunningham led the revival and his three pointer brought Solent to 78 - 82. Teesside hastily called a timeout but a Mike Griffiths basket brought Stars to within a point before a couple of long range misses by Mark Scott and a controversial foul called on Cunningham handed the advantage to the league champions as Solent went down 89 - 95 (Cunningham 26, Harper 24).
The quarter-final of the League Championship Play-Offs pitted third placed Solent Stars against sixth placed Islington White Heat. White Heat played their usual run and gun game and did not allow Solent to settle at all throughout the game. Solent established an early lead through Tripalin's three pointers and - despite the scrappy, stop-start nature of the encounter, littered with fouls (43) - were ahead throughout the match to win 92 - 84 (Irish 30).
After the game, Chris Harper picked up both the Player of the Year and the Players' Player of the Year awards, whilst Alan McDonald was the recipient of the Newcomer of the Year award.
Alan McDonald (left, with Chairman Bob Paulley) and Chris Harper receive their awards
The final home game at Fleming Park was an emotional one as Alan Cunningham had announced his retirement at the end of the season from playing full time basketball, whilst it also marked the end of an era as Colin Irish was also bowing out. Panji Grainger would also be leaving the area over the summer for a new job. Worthing Thunder were the fitting opponents on the night, having been one of Cunningham's main clubs with whom, as player/coach, he had won many awards. Worthing already had two comfortable league wins over Solent in the season and started as favourites. The game was close and the Worthing coach called a timeout with just six minutes remaining and his team leading 77 - 78. Whatever his intention - perhaps to remind his team that this was a two leg game with the home leg to come - he could not have foreseen that his team would only score one more point and lose the game by 18 points to a team that thrilled the home crowd with their best six minutes of basketball in the season. Solent won the first leg 97 - 79 (Cunningham 28, Irish 22, Harper 21).
Perhaps too much hung on the return leg at Worthing Leisure Centre the following week for it to be a classic game. Worthing hustled the Solent team, but it was they who suffered most in the discipline department when Paul Mundy-Castle fouled out for dissent. Previously, he had taken Worthing to 42 - 57 lead, just three points short of an aggregate win. Solent weathered that storm and although Chris Harper was having a nightmare game with his floor shooting, he proved accurate enough from the free throw line to help Solent regain the aggregate advantage. In the end Solent, despite playing poorly, only conceded the game by seven points 76 - 83 (Irish 22) to proceed to the final at Wembley against Teesside Mohawks.
Action from the Championship Play-Offs Final at Wembley
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