Leopards cast as underdogs

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The Independent Online
ROGER HUGGINS recognises his essential duties as a captain. "I see it as a licence to yell louder at the referee than anybody else," he said. "And I'll listen to players' complaints and relay them."

These are qualities whose worth is being clearly demonstrated. Under his stentorian leadership the Sheffield Sharks will tonight contest their third successive national basketball cup final in the third year of their existence.

The Sharks' defensive resilience and the good fortune of playing on their home court at Sheffield Arena makes them marginal favourites to overcome the London challengers, Leopards, in what is likely to be a match of contrasting tactics.

The Sharks are notoriously reluctant to yield easy scores and tend to build from the back. They have conceded fewer points on average per match (74.7) than any of their main rivals in the Budweiser League but tend to score enough (an average of 86.5) to win. The Leopards are rather more generous but can be relentless in attack. Their average league score of 94.4 points per game must be set alongside the 87.1 scored against them.

Leopards have also won in the league at Sheffield this season and had the fillip of a semi-final victory over last season's triple winners London Towers. But Sharks have been equal to most big-game challenges since their startling emergence.

"We were caught a bit cold in last year's final but generally speaking we know know how to handle the important games," said Huggins. "We know we'll have our work cut out and this team perhaps hasn't got the smooth rhythm of our first year. But we're getting there and the integration of new players has gone as well as can be expected."

The new recruits include the American former NBA player Voise Winters, who is on a scoring roll. Since the Sharks surprisingly lost twice at the end of last year, Winters has been reeling off points, 61 of them in the last three games including 30 last week against Hemel Hempstead. He has been central to their defence and his rebound skills have illuminated the season. Another American, Deon Hames, has also stamped his authority. With Europeans now allowed automatic access to the league under regulations allied to the Bosman football case, the foreign contingent is increasingly from across the Atlantic.

Huggins, 29, who has been in the Sharks' starting line-up from their first season, still shines brightly as an Englishman but his talents, too, were developed in America. After learning the game with East London Royals the 6ft 7ins tall forward won a scholarship to Hawaii Pacific University. He helped them to win the college championships, made the All-American first team, was MVP in his senior year. and is extremely self-critical.

"I'm doing all right I suppose but there have been games where I've got into trouble," he said, "where I'm not involved enough. I've drifted out of a few games for 10 minutes at a time. But it's coming back and I'm scoring a few points and I'm yelling."

Leopards joined the league in the same season as Sharks and have made steady if unspectacular progress. They are tucked in behind the leaders in the league but if they win tonight it will almost certainly be thanks to the scoring prowess of John White, another prolific American.