So it was that for the first game of the season, a friendly against newly promoted Oxford Devils, the coaches were to call on mainly local talent plus a few triallists. Among those triallists were Americans Vernon Marshall and Ryan Nolan, and two English players with national league experience, Mark Jackson and Nick O'Harabe plus Alan McDonald, returning after a year in America.
Chris St. Omer
It was the local players who were on court at the beginning of the game as Solent slipped behind 5 - 22 by the fifth minute. The introduction of the more experienced players brought Solent back into the game with Jackson scoring two early three pointers. The game was effectively lost in the second quarter when coach Mark Scott gave the youngsters extended court time and watched Solent fall behind 22 - 40 at the halftime interval. The experienced players once again took the court at the beginning of the second half and a three pointer from Trevor Donaldson briefly put Solent 58 - 56 ahead. In the end Solent lost 76 - 83 (Jackson 23) demonstrating that much work was to be done with the home squad, although the result was considerably better than the previous year when Solent had lost by 49 points!
Solent Stars were hit by a world event just after they had signed an American player, Eric Cheers. Cheers, a New Yorker, was left stranded in New York after the September 11th tragedy at the World Trade Center. This meant that Solent had an all-English team (bar locally based Dimitry LaCroix) for their first weekend of matches, two National Trophy games. To add to their woes, Chris St. Omer was also stranded in America because of the flying restrictions imposed after the terrorist activities.
On Saturday, Solent travelled to Worthing Thunder for their opening game. Solent lacked experience and height and were quickly punished when Worthing went into an early lead, but three pointers from Duane Laight and Alan McDonald levelled the scores at 21 all. The inexperience of the team - containing three Under-20 players - caused the foul count to add up and Worthing's eight free throws in the last two minutes helped them pull away. The same pattern continued throughout the game before Solent finally conceded defeat (86 - 109).
In London on the following day, against North London Lords, Solent's plight was even more dire as the previous evening's top scorer, Duane Laight (17points), was unfit to play. Chris Sheldrick led by example for Solent as they battled away against older and bigger opponents. Dave McKay, another temporary signing before going off to college, also gave a brave performance as Solent were out powered 72 - 107.
Solent's first home game coincided with the arrival of Eric Cheers. Westminster Warriors, from Division Two, were the opponents. They set the early pace as Solent looked sluggish and were not playing as a team. It was no surprise that after six minutes of the first quarter, Solent trailed 10 - 20. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. But the man in this case was not the new American player, but an older version in the shape of Alan Cunningham. As co-owner of the club, Cunningham had latterly agreed to be available for home matches, if required. He straightaway scored an audacious three pointer, followed it with a drive through the defence for a lay-up and then swatted away a Westminster goal attempt. By halftime Solent were level at 47 all. The team's confidence grew with Cunningham's influence on the game and the second half saw them draw away to a 97 - 83 (Cunningham 27) win.
Solent announced the signing of a second American player, having failed to agree terms with Toby Tripalin. The new player was 22-year-old, 6' 4", John Bynum from California. His debut would be at Ealing Tornados (sic) the following weekend.
For the away Ealing Tornados game, Solent were without Trevor Donaldson (ill) but had newcomers Nick O'Harabe and John Bynum in the squad. Solent established a 38 - 26 point lead towards the end of the second quarter with a host of three pointers from Duane Laight and John Bynum. A late surge by Ealing brought them to within three points at halftime (42 - 39). Despite a timeout called by Mark Scott after the team had been outscored 3 - 9 at the beginning of the third quarter, Solent still conceded a further eight points before scoring themselves. Eric Cheers added a couple of baskets to the Solent total at the beginning of the final quarter, but Solent lost Bynum (knee) and Alan McDonald (ankle) before the end of the game. A disappointing defeat, 80 - 87 (Bynum 24, Laight 20) meant Solent had won just one of their opening four National Trophy games and were about to face unbeaten Worthing Thunder in the next game.
Worthing were hot favourites to complete the double over Solent on their visit to Fleming Park. However, they had not reckoned with the accurate shooting of Duane Laight and John Bynum who were mainly responsible for Solent's 35 - 25 lead at the end of the first quarter. However, by the time Laight fouled out with eleven minutes remaining, Solent trailed 68 - 76. Baskets from Alan Cunningham and Chris Sheldrick brought the home team back into the game, before they too fouled out with the score at 99 all. Up stepped Bynum, who earlier had thrilled the crowd with a spectacular first minute dunk. He weaved his way through the Worthing defence to add two more points, and then popped in two from the free throw line. Solent held on to win 105 - 101 (Bynum 35, Cheers 21).
Next at Fleming Park were InterBasket, London, who had an identical playing record to Solent in the National Trophy. By the end of the third quarter, Solent were leading 94 - 74 and Joe White, the visiting coach, was heard to say to his team, "Where's the passion? Don't you want to play? Have you given up?" This had the desired effect and InterBasket harried the Solent team into many errors and nearly took the game, especially when Bynum picked up a knee injury, necessitating a trip to hospital. Solent won 110 - 106 (Bynum 35, Cunningham 24, Cheers 22) but coach Mark Scott held his team in the changing room for a long while after the end of the game.
John Bynum was still nursing his knee injury for the visit of North London Lords the following week. His presence was missed, as in a scrappy first half Solent trailed 40 - 46 at halftime. After the interval, two quick baskets from Dimitry LaCroix set Solent on their way and with regular scoring from Alan Cunningham and Eric Cheers, Solent did enough to take the game 91 - 86 (Cunningham 25, Cheers 25).
Alan Cunningham decided to travel with the Solent team to play the rock-bottom team, Westminster Warriors. Solent looked comfortable at the start of the game, leading 25 - 11 at the end of the first quarter. Coach Mark Scott had persisted with just five players in that time. However, when he rang the changes, Solent's soft underbelly was exposed. The English players in the team had in Scott's words been 'under performing' throughout the opening part of the season. The comments seemed justified as Solent surrendered the lead to Westminster in the third quarter. Solent had some justification in feeling hard done by when, in a game when Westminster were constantly harrying and playing catch up, they went the first fifteen minutes of the second half without a foul call against them. Westminster went ahead 67 - 68 in the fifth minute of the final quarter, but two baskets from Eric Cheers put Solent back into the lead which they never surrendered, winning 83 - 71 (Bynum 35).
By the next weekend, Eric Cheers had been released. Co-owner Alan Cunningham said, "Eric's physique doesn't allow him to play the role we need in the team. This was particularly noticeable last weekend when he was outmuscled at Westminster and lost the ball on several occasions". The replacement for Cheers was 6' 6" Marlin Capers, from Georgia, who flew in on Friday morning, survived a car accident in Bob Paulley's car on the way from the airport, and was about to play in a double-header weekend!
It proved to be a baptism of fire for Marlin Capers as Solent faced Ealing Tornados at home. In a rough and tumble match, in which Solent always held the upper hand, Trevor Donaldson was disqualified for retaliation after being fouled and pushed in the back. Capers, who had by this time been receiving treatment for cramp, encroached on the court in an attempt to calm things down and was also disqualified for that action. Five minutes were spent by the officials sorting the situation out, but that did not detract from the earlier Solent salvo of points from John Bynum, Capers and Alan Cunningham that had put Solent in the driving seat, leading to their 121 - 101 (Bynum 29, Capers 21, Cunningham 21) victory.
The next day found Solent in London to play InterBasket, London. Having already qualified for the quarter-final, the pressure was off for the Solent team. The American duo of John Bynum and Marlin Capers scored 61 of Solent's 100 points in the game as Solent steamed to a 100 - 85 (Bynum 35, Capers 26) win.
The first league game was away to Reading Rockets in their first season in top-flight basketball and under the ex-England coach, David Titmuss. Solent drew first blood with four points from Duane Laight to lead 8 - 4. Reading pressure then resulted in Solent only adding six more points in the quarter whilst at one stage the home team scored 18 unanswered points. The second quarter belonged to Solent's two Americans with Marlin Capers scoring 17 consecutive points as Solent pulled back to trail by just one point at the interval. Capers then picked up several fouls, forcing coach Mark Scott to keep him on the bench for most of the even scoring third quarter. It was Bynum's 15 points in the final quarter that proved the difference between the teams as Solent ran out winners, 80 - 76 (Capers 32, Bynum 30).
A visit to reigning league champions, Plymouth Raiders, followed. The Solent team surprised the locals by going in to an early lead before Plymouth were able to pull back to a two-point advantage (22 - 24) at the first interval. However, Solent upped the ante again and by halftime held an 11-point advantage. With Alan Cunningham off court receiving treatment for a hamstring strain, Marlin Capers picked up his fourth foul and restricted Mark Scott's choice of players. Capers fouled out with eight minutes remaining. A great rearguard action by the English players on the team, including a vital three pointer from Trevor Donaldson that drew the scores level with seconds remaining, kept Solent in the game. Unfortunately, Donaldson turned from hero to villain when seconds after scoring his basket, he fouled a Plymouth player. The resultant two points were the margin of victory that Plymouth achieved just three seconds later. The final score was 86 - 88 (Bynum 36, Cunningham 20).
Just one week later Solent were back in the same venue for the semi-final of the National Trophy competition. The game followed a similar pattern to the previous one, with Solent being even more successful in the first half and leading 51 - 35. One down side was the Solent foul tally which included four on John Bynum. Plymouth exploited Solent's limitations in defence, because of the foul count, and reduced their deficit to eight points going into the final quarter. Solent then made several unforced errors - Alan McDonald's easily intercepted pass, a mix-up between Dimitry LaCroix and Trevor Donaldson, and a put-in from out of bounds by Marlin Capers that went straight out of play. Each time Plymouth were able to score and finally edged home 94 - 99 (Capers 26, Bynum 25, Cunningham 22).
After four consecutive away matches Solent returned home for the league match against Teesside Mohawks. Teesside brought with them a side fancied for the league championship. Solent did not seem intimidated in the early proceedings and led 47 - 43 at halftime. In a disastrous third quarter for Solent they were outscored 15 - 32 and the game seemed to have slipped away from them. To their credit Solent battled back to within one point of the visitors in the closing stages. However, a series of fouls gave Teesside several visits to the free throw line to edge the game 93 - 97 (Bynum 31, Capers 28).
The next visitors to Fleming Park were Sutton Pumas. After three games against top-class opposition, Solent were hoping for an easier ride against Sutton. So it proved with Solent in control throughout, even building a 30-point advantage at one stage. John Bynum was in his element with several spectacular dunks. Although Solent eased up - to coach Mark Scott's frustration - Solent were convincing winners 92 - 74 (Capers 32, Bynum 27).
The final match of the calendar year was a visit to InterBasket London, a team that Solent had already beaten twice in National Trophy matches. But it was a depleted team that Solent could muster on the night. Missing, for a variety of reasons, were Alan Cunningham, Chris St. Omer and Dimitry LaCroix. In addition, Trevor Donaldson was playing whilst under the influence of a heavy cold. Marlin Capers could only manage one scoring shot in a first half that saw Solent trail by 39 - 47 points. An opening burst in the second half saw John Bynum, Nick O'Harabe and Capers reduce the deficit to one point and a timely three pointer by Alan McDonald took Solent into the lead. A dogged defensive performance by Solent, despite O'Harabe's fifth foul dismissal with five minutes remaining, then kept the home team at bay but it was only in the dying seconds that Solent clinched a 95 - 93 (Bynum 35) win.
The first game of the new year was a visit to Worthing Thunder. It marked the return on court of coach Mark Scott, who had surgery to his Achilles tendon over the previous summer and was not expected to play at all in the season. In part his return was as a result of other players' injuries that left Solent with only one guard. A strong first half performance saw Solent lead by eleven points at halftime (50 - 39). Worthing fought back to take the third quarter honours and went one point into the lead at the end of the period. With five minutes remaining and Solent just two points behind, Alan Cunningham was forced to leave the game with a bleeding scalp after he and Paul Mundy-Castle clashed whilst vying for a loose ball. With the top scorer gone, things looked bleak for Solent. However, a three pointer from Steve Davison followed by four points from Cunningham's replacement, Chris St. Omer gave Solent a vital cushion and, in the end, a famous victory, 94 - 86 (Cunningham 26, Capers 23).
With Duane Laight having broken his finger and Alan McDonald his jaw, Solent were hard pressed again to manage numbers for their home game against Kingston Wildcats. Alan Cunningham was still nursing his scalp injury and Mark Scott had suffered after-effects from his first run out after his operation. Nonetheless, despite a poor second half performance, Solent were good enough to beat Kingston 98 - 79 (Capers 33, Bynum 30).
Nick O'Harabe had his best game of the season against the next visitors, Manchester Magic. Apart from scoring 18 points, O'Harabe pulled down quite a few rebounds to help Solent keep possession of the ball. The teams scored at will in the first quarter (32 - 32) but in the second quarter only managed 29 points between them as both sides concentrated on defence. Solent led 55 - 38 at halftime and were in no mood to concede their winning position, finally coming through 92 - 77 (Bynum 29).
Mark Scott was furious with his team's first half performance on their visit to Coventry Crusaders. Having initially led, he saw some poor defensive play give the advantage to the home team. As Chris St. Omer was having difficulty containing Coventry's experienced Derrick Pope, Scott brought himself into the game. This action, plus a halftime verbal salvo to the team, had the desired effect as Solent pulled back and won the third quarter by 13 points and the match 104 - 90 (Bynum 38, Capers 20).
InterBasket London were the next visitors to Fleming Park. Solent struggled from the start. Mark Scott had said to his team that they must not rely solely on the American duo to get them out of trouble, but the words were not heeded. Although John Bynum and Marlin Capers were in the action throughout, they were poorly supported by the rest of the team. InterBasket, on the other hand, played a very competent team game and, in the end, gained a deserved victory, 80 - 83 (Bynum 29, Capers 20).
Having been beaten by lowly InterBasket, Solent must have felt apprehensive about their next visitors, league leaders Plymouth Raiders. If that was the case, they certainly did not show it as they raced into an early 15 - 2 lead. Solent included young 6' 9" John Nottley in the team for this game and he said he had been overwhelmed by the atmosphere at the game. This was in part because Solent eventually opened up a 30-point lead in the first half that had the 400 plus crowd cheering to the rafters. Plymouth trimmed back the lead to 59 - 40 by halftime. Nottley grabbed some important rebounds and Steve Davison did likewise whilst adding several important three pointers in Solent's 113 - 97 (Capers 34, Bynum 32) win.
Solent travelled to Sutton Pumas to find that the home team had made two late signings, Mark Quashie (from Ealing) and Marcus Knight (from the Basketball League's Milton Keynes). These two dominated the early stages of the game and Solent found themselves 17 - 33 in arrears at the first quarter's end. Mark Scott joined the fray and was able to stem the flow of Sutton's points and gradually Solent clawed their way back into the game and at the start of the final quarter led by three points (79 - 76). Sutton then had a final rally that took them to a seven-point advantage that they did not surrender. Solent lost 91 - 97 (Bynum 34, Capers 26).
Anxious to give the English players more court time, Solent arranged back-to-back matches against USAF Lakenheath Eagles. With neither American in the squad, Solent found it hard to score against the team that had recently won the European championship for the American Forces bases. Steve Davison stole the scoring honours for Solent with 22 points. John Nottley also did well with 14 points, matching those of Duane Laight for whom this was the first match after injury. Solent lost 94 - 96 (Davison 22).
The return match saw Solent at their strongest. The game was played at the River Park Leisure Centre, Winchester. The venue obviously appealed to the Solent American duo as they scored 79 points between them in Solent's 131 - 90 win (Capers 40, Bynum 39, Davison 21).
By way of a diversion, Solent staged the men's and women's All Star Games at Fleming Park. Over 600 fans turned out to see the cream of the English Basketball League. Solent contributed John Bynum, Marlin Capers and Alan Cunningham to the South squad. A poor third quarter contributed to the South losing 117 - 128 with John Bynum scoring 23 points.
All-Star Game team photo including Alan Cunningham (7), John Bynum (10) and Marlin Capers (11)
Solent's next home league fixture was against Reading Rockets. Unusually, all twenty players appeared on the scoresheet in this game, but it was John Bynum's 31 points that led the way. His scoring was matched by Ted Smith who landed a couple of late three pointers. However, Smith's efforts were in vain as Solent posted a 108 - 88 (Bynum 31) victory to guarantee them a place in the end of season play-offs.
Worthing Thunder were the next visitors to Fleming Park. They started brightly and opened up a six-point lead at the end of the first quarter. The opening of the second quarter saw Solent score 14 points without reply. Trevor Donaldson and Alan Cunningham both contributed a three pointer in this period. With John Bynum and Marlin Capers both on three fouls in the first half, coach Mark Scott was forced to rest them. Worthing came back to one point before Scott himself entered the game. Solent held a narrow three-point advantage at halftime (47 - 44). Fourteen points ahead with five minutes to play, Solent looked comfortable until Sean Hampton scored back-to-back three pointers. Marlin Capers then fouled out making Solent's lead look even more suspect. Fittingly, it was Alan Cunningham who had the final say including a last second three pointer to consolidate Solent's 100 - 91 (Bynum 34, Cunningham 23) win.
Solent travelled to Kingston Wildcats for their next game. Kingston, in fifth league place, were two places behind Solent. John Bynum suffered an injury to his toe early on which meant missing part of the first quarter. For the fourth time in the season, Solent held a double-figure lead over their opponents only to let it slip in the final quarter. Kingston had stayed in the game thanks to an unusually successful run of three pointers, mainly from player/coach Solomon Ayinla. In the end Solent could not make up the deficit despite a late rally. The 13-point advantage at the start of the fourth quarter turned into a demoralising 92 - 96 (Bynum 30, Capers 23) defeat.
Teesside Mohawks had clinched the NBL Championship at Sutton Pumas the previous evening before playing host to Solent on the Sunday afternoon. Without Alan Cunningham and Duane Laight, Solent gave the new champions something to think about, once they had settled down. The game had begun with Teesside's Ralph Bucci scoring six quick points. Solent switched to zone defence, but six turnovers saw them trailing 17 - 26 at the end of the first quarter. By halftime, Solent had clawed back to trail by just four points (46 - 50). Trevor Donaldson scored early points in the third quarter and a big three pointer by Nick O'Harabe took Solent to their biggest lead in the game at 69 - 58. Loose play by Alan McDonald and Donaldson undid some of the good work and allowed Teesside to level the scores at the end of the third quarter. Teesside were stronger in the final section of the game and forged ahead to a 95 - 106 (Bynum 36, Capers 23) win.
After playing the league champions, Solent's next game was at home to rock-bottom Coventry Crusaders. The match will be remembered for Alan Cunningham's dismissal after a mere 83 seconds on court. The incident happened toward the end of the third quarter. Cunningham, anxious to protect an Achilles heel problem, had not entered the game until just over three minutes of the third quarter remaining. As he went to collect a rebound, he was pushed by Coventry's Matt Collins. In Cunningham's words, "He shoved me in the back and I flew out-of-bounds. The referee should have seen the incident. I jumped up, went over to the guy, and he took a dive. I stood over him and told him 'Don't be doing that stuff'." The referee, Trevor Funnell, considered that Cunningham's action warranted a dismissal - only the third in his career spanning over 30 years. Solent won the game, in part thanks to an improved performance by Nick O'Harabe, who had so far in the season not reached expectations. Marlin Capers was fouled out in the last minute, but had done enough in his contribution to Solent's 96 - 85 (O'Harabe 21, Capers 21) win. The victory confirmed Solent as third placed in the league.
A visit to Manchester Magic was the final league game for Solent Stars. Once again a depleted squad took to the road. The game swung Manchester's way when Sergio Lara Berchal hit eight consecutive points in the third quarter to open up a 55 - 63 lead. Earlier John Bynum had sat out a good part of the first half after picking up a technical foul - to take him to three fouls in the game - for backchat to the referee. In the final minute, Bynum's three pointer took Solent to 85 - 88 and a free throw point from Marlin Capers cut the difference to just one shot. But a Steve Davison foul with nine seconds remaining allowed Manchester to sew up the game 86 - 90 (Capers 31, Bynum 24). This set up Solent to meet Worthing Thunder in the home and away legs of the league championship quarter-final.
The away leg of the quarter-final was described as 'edge of the seats' fare. The lead changed hands fifteen times and Solent were in foul trouble throughout the second half - finishing with four players on four fouls. Sean Hampton posted his 1,000th point of the season as Solent allowed him too much leeway at times. Nick O'Harabe once again had a commanding game and with veteran Alan Cunningham playing the whole game, Solent were able to accommodate the injury to Marlin Capers just before halftime when he twisted his knee. In the end just two points separated the teams as Solent went down 96 - 98 (Bynum 32).
With a place in the Final Four tournament at the Coventry Skydome at stake, Solent came roaring out of the starting block in the return leg against Worthing Thunder the following Saturday. Alan Cunningham led the charge with an early three pointer and a controlled team performance saw Solent into a first quarter lead, 28 - 12. A disjointed start to the second quarter gave Worthing a faint hope, but three pointers from Trevor Donaldson, Steve Davison and Alan McDonald helped Solent to their most commanding first half lead of 50 - 28 with just two minutes remaining. Nick O'Harabe stole the scoring honours in the third quarter, which included a three pointer a dunk and a free throw, as Solent denied Worthing a chance to get back into the game. Solent ran out winners on the night 99 - 79 (Cunningham 32, O'Harabe 20) to win 195 - 177 on aggregate.
Before the Finals weekend, Solent visited the Isle of Wight to stage a demonstration game before taking part in a Mayor's Charity Gala game at Fleming Park. The two teams were a pick of Solent Veterans v the present team (without Alan Cunningham). Two last second free throws by John Bynum gave an unusual result, a 117 - 117 tie! John Bynum received the Player of the Year Award, with Alan Cunningham as runner-up. Bynum also was the recipient of the Players' Player of the Year trophy.
The semi-final at the Skydome pitted Solent Stars against Plymouth Raiders. Cruelly, Nick O'Harabe had damaged a cartilage at a final training session before the weekend and could take no part. Solent once again roared into an early 25 - 10 lead at the end of the first quarter, thanks to an outstanding display from Alan Cunningham. Although - as in earlier games against Plymouth - Solent saw their lead cancelled out in the third quarter, Stars never let Plymouth get ahead of them and the match winning trio of John Bynum, Marlin Capers and Cunningham scored 29 points in the final quarter to record a 109 - 89 (Cunningham 30, Bynum 27, Capers 24) convincing win. The result set up a repeat of the final of two years previously against Teesside Mohawks.With only eight fit players for the final, coach Mark Scott called on Jon Rumsey, who had signed earlier in the season, to join the team for the final. It was the current league, cup and championship squad from Teesside who dictated the early phases of the game and Solent faced a 14 - 37 deficit in the second quarter. With Marlin Capers playing like a man possessed, Solent clawed their way back into the game and by halftime the difference was just ten points (49 - 59). An anxious error-strewn third quarter saw Solent trim another seven points off the lead (70 - 73) to set up an amazing final quarter that saw fortunes wildly fluctuate one way and then the other. John Bynum - with two dunks - finally put Solent ahead for the first time, but an 89 - 86 lead soon turned to a 91 - 96 deficit with time running out. Hope was restored as Alan Cunningham scored a three pointer and then gave the pass to Bynum who skipped through the Teesside defence to level the scores (96 - 96) on the final buzzer. Solent went ahead three times in the last ninety seconds of overtime only for Teesside to draw back level each time. With seven seconds to go, Bynum received the ball from an out-of-bounds situation. Once again he eluded the Teesside defence and soared high to finish the season with a spectacular dunk. Unfortunately the ball rebounded off the ring, high into the air, to take the game into a second overtime period (109 - 109). Teesside gained an early lead in the second overtime period and when Bynum, Capers and Steve Davison all fouled out, Solent had little left to offer as they fell to a 117 - 127 (Bynum 35, Capers 35, Cunningham 29) defeat.