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London Lions win first EuroCup after second leg fightback against Besiktas

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Amid scenes of complete chaos and bewildering cacophony, in front of a crowd that grew as wild as the intoxicating sport they were witnessing, London Lions became the first English team to win a major European trophy by beating Besiktas 81-70 to take the Women’s EuroCup 149-145 on aggregate.

The delirious scenes at the end were understandable both because of the importance of the match and the stunning drama it produced, and because these were moments of particularly poignant glory. The Lions are owned by 777 Partners, who already run football clubs in France, Belgium, Italy and Brazil and are the group behind Everton’s ongoing takeover saga, but who have already announced their intention to scale back funding at the end of the current season.

The Lions are unlikely to play in continental competition in 2024-25, and this may come to be seen as their one shot at European glory, a final hurrah for a (nearly) all-conquering side – they have won all 14 of their domestic fixtures this season, with their first-leg defeat in Turkey their only reverse of the campaign – that is likely to be transformed in the coming months. This was certainly a final European game for Kat Snytsina, who has already announced her retirement.

But how her team grasped their fragile, fleeting opportunity. They came into the game trailing by seven, but from the moment Temi Fagbenle eased in the first layup they were never behind on the night. But neither could they work a decisive advantage, and the evening did not tip fully in their favour until, with just over two minutes remaining, Megan Gustafson was fouled.

Aziz Akkaya, the wildly gesticulatory Besiktas coach, was sufficiently outraged that he earned a second technical foul, the home fans booing and baying as they waved him out of the arena. It turned out that for all of Akkaya’s efforts it was the Lions fans he most inspired, and there was a moment in the third quarter, just after he got his first technical foul for too furiously disputing another call, when it felt like the roof might lift off.

His second infraction led to a break of several minutes before attention returned to the court. Still there was time for Dana Evans and Elif Bayram to shave the Lions lead to five, before three-pointers from She Peddy and, finally, with only 12 seconds remaining, Holly Winterburn finally hauled the Lions into a winning position.

London Lions head coach Stella Kaltsidou is held aloft by her joyous players after their win. Photograph: Zac Goodwin/PA

Besiktas made a wonderful contribution to a historic evening, both on and off the court. The club had requested 2,000 seats, over a quarter of the venue’s capacity, from which their fans, until those wild final seconds when the outcome suddenly became clear, offered often wild support.

For all their drum-wielding, arm-waving, scarf-twirling efforts they had little hope of outsinging the DJ, who took the announcer’s regular exhortations to “make some noise” very much to heart. His tunes could not disguise the fact the away fans showed greater fervour and had the more varied songbook, their opponents’ offering little beyond the enthusiastically adopted Let’s Go Lions before, with tension mounting and time ebbing, they lost all reason and just started screaming.

In the afternoon many of the Turkish side’s supporters had snuck inside the venue to cheer the team through their final training session, after which they congregated on the steps outside the Copper Box to await entry to the main event. Once they were let in the manoeuvring and repositioning of their extensive collection of flags and banners became a diverting pre-match sideshow, particularly as the group behind one declaring: “From Akatlar to London Victory” jostled to get it next to a sibling that read “Will be ours”. By tip-off both were covered over by their compatriots’ rival signage. Victory was not theirs.

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