Having seen his players collect a whole host of awards over the last week, Mark Clark has been rewarded for a fantastic season with Lions' WBBL team by being awarded the Molten Betty Codona WBBL Coach of the Year award.
He topped the voting by his peers from the 12 other WBBL clubs after a season that has seen Lions win all 33 domestic games, win at least a treble and need one more victory in Sunday's Play-off final to record the best season in British women's basketball history.
By winning the WBBL Championship, WBBL Cup, and WBBL Trophy, Lions became the first team to do a treble since Sheffield Hatters in 2014-15 – the WBBL’s inaugural season – which is fitting as this award was recently renamed in honour of that club’s founder, and British basketball legend, Betty Codona OBE, who sadly passed away in March.Currently 33-0 in all competitions, with one game to play, it is the first time that a WBBL club has had an unbeaten season through all of the Championship, Cup and Trophy, and only the second time that a club has had a perfect league campaign, following Sevenoaks Suns in 2018-19.
On top of all of that, Lions valiantly represented the WBBL and the nation on the continent, reaching the knockout stages of the FIBA EuroCup Women and achieving a famous victory over powerhouse Tango Bourges at Crystal Palace, inflicting one of just two defeats on the eventual winners.
Lions captain Shanice Beckford-Norton had praise for her coach:
“I’m really pleased for him It’s well-deserved and in all the time he’s coached me, it’s always been about his team rather than him” said the Londoner, who was also coached by Clark at the Barking Abbey Academy before their link-up with Lions."
“It’s not just about what happens on the court, he cares about our wellbeing and looks after us.”
The Lions captain revealed the Clark arrived at practice unaware he had won the award:
“When he walked into the gym we all started clapping and he looked a bit confused. He said ‘what have I done?’. It was really nice.”
Clarks was predictably modest about the award:
"Coach-of-the-year is about the team on and off court" he said. "It's been a great year but this award reflect the great players and staff we've put together. It's been a long but really successful year that I've enjoyed every moment of."
The list of achievements began in the off-season, as Clark assembled a formidable roster including an array of Great Britain internationals and London 2012 Olympians, bringing Jo Leedham-Warner back to these shores for the first time in her professional career, alongside fellow-Olympian Azania Stewart. Mid-season, Clark added Shequila Joseph, another GB international in her first WBBL campaign, having graduated from Ole Miss and played across Europe. There was the acquisition of one of the nation’s leading young lights in Holly Winterburn, and a core of returning stars including Kennedy Leonard, Shanice Beckford-Norton, and impactful Americans Cassie Breen and Stephanie Umeh.
The depth and balance of the roster was evident as they had seven players average double-figure scoring in the regular season, paced by Breen and Leedham-Warner at close to 16 points per game, both top ten in the WBBL rankings, also second and third in three-point percentage; while Leonard led the league in assists, and Umeh and Stewart were first and second in field goal percentage.
That roster wasted no time, getting off to a flying start in league play and winning the WBBL Cup at the Utilita Arena, Birmingham, in January, by overpowering Newcastle Eagles 87-47 on that day – the first time that Lions had been past the quarter-finals of this competition – as Azania Stewart scored 20 points to win MVP and lift the season’s first silverware.
Nothing else was settled, however, until the sternest tests were faced from March onwards as Lions met the defending champions and the league’s other unbeaten team to that point, Sevenoaks Suns, three times in quick succession.
The first of those was the BBL Trophy Final at the Emirates Arena, where Lions clamped down defensively to beat Suns 72-36 as Winterburn led the way with 16 points. Two much tighter league clashes followed, with Lions using a big second half performance to edge Suns 67-58 at the Copper Box Arena in March, ultimately wrestling the WBBL Championship title from their rivals for the first time since 2017.
Overall, Lions finished the regular season campaign leading the league in almost every offensive category, scoring an average of 96 points per game which was 11 clear of their nearest rival, while they also finished the campaign as the league’s best defence having been second in that regard for much of the year, conceding an average of just 54 points per game. Their high intensity style was epitomised by a league-high 14 steals per game, two clear of any other team, leading to 25 points from turnovers, five better than anyone else.