Basketball: Commonwealth medallists help Eagles go within sight of clinching league title

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Newcastle Eagles opened a two-point lead at the top of the British Basketball League with a 99-75 victory at Ponds Forge over the third-placed Sheffield Sharks last night and can put one hand on the silverware if they defeat the second-placed Scottish Rocks at the Metro FM Arena on Tyneside tomorrow.

For the Eagles, Fab Flournoy, the player-coach, and Andrew Bridge returned after winning a bronze medal with England at the Commonwealth Games, but they were without Andrew Sullivan who was injured in Melbourne.

The Eagles outscored the Sharks 64-37 in the second half.

British basketball's task to prove it is worth a place at the 2012 Olympics begins in September, with qualifying group fixtures for the men's and women's teams in the European Championships leading to the 2007 finals.

England's men withdrew from the 2005 European Championships programme through lack of finance and the sport's international governing body, Fiba, has ruled that the home nation cannot be automatically handed a place in the Olympics as is usually the case for hosts.

Fiba is allowing Great Britain men's and women's teams to take the place of England in the Europeans, as only a Great Britain team can take part in the Olympics.

England's men will visit Slovakia and Albania and host the Dutch and Belarus. while the women will travel to Estonia and Bosnia and are at home to Luxembourg and Portugal.

With three qualifying groups, the men must win their section or be one of the best two second-placed finishers to qualify for the play-offs. The women's team would have to finish in first or second place in their group to advance.

At stake for both is a chance to qualify for the 2009 European Championship finals, and it is plain that Fiba expects to see the British teams competing at that level to justify a place at the London Games.

England's men and women both won bronze at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games. For the men, facing Australian and New Zealand teams who regularly compete at World Championships and Olympics, a bronze was probably both the most and least they could expect.