From 2014 to 2018, the Sydney Uni Flames enjoyed one of their best spells in the WNBL since reaching seven grand finals in eight years between 2001 and 2008. An unexpected preliminary final appearance in 2014/15 was followed two seasons later by a first championship in 16 years, before another playoff appearance in 2017/18.
How quickly things change.
2018/19 saw the Flames put together a dismal 2-19 record, with the loss of stars Jennifer Hamson, Asia Taylor, and Katie-Rae Ebzery compounded by an injury crisis that saw the team unable to chalk up a win until Round 8 against Bendigo. Now, with first-year coach Katrina Hibbert looking to rebuild the Flames back to their former glory, a win over the University of Canberra Capitals two weeks ago got the proverbial monkey off the Flames’ back early in the campaign as the long rebuilding process begins.
Facing a struggling Townsville side at home appeared to offer the Flames a solid chance at a second victory which would equal last season's tally. However, the Fire are a proud club themselves, also looking to get back to their heady days of three championships in four years between 2015 and 2018. Moreover, the Fire also came in on the back of a five-point overtime victory against Perth in which they put up 93 points. The two sides came in sitting in the bottom spots in the league for scoring average, but combined for 49 points in the opening term as the offences clicked. Flames star Alice Kunek dropped in 10 first quarter points on her way to 22 for the game, scoring from the perimeter and close to the basket as the home side took a 28-21 lead.
“My teammates are finding me, I feel like I’m attacking the ring really well, and finding other people, and it’s just fun out there,” Kunek stated after the game. “We played as a team, we moved the ball.”
But for all their outstanding work in the opening term, things fell away for the Flames in the second quarter. The offence that had flowed so well in the early minutes stagnated, and with Darcee Garbin’s three-point shooting complementing Townsville’s defence, a 21-9 second quarter ensued. As has been the case on several occasions this season, the Flames had been reduced to a flicker after a solid opening to the game. Meanwhile, the Fire began to look more like a Towering Inferno, taking a 42-37 lead into halftime.
“There was a patch where we kind of didn’t move the ball and that’s when they made their run,” Kunek remarked, succinctly wrapping the second quarter. “But I think we really just play well when we all move the ball, we play that aggressive defence.”
That aggressive defence was on show from both sides in the opening stages of the second half as the teams looked to extinguish their opponents’ offence. Save for a couple of defensive breakdowns midway through the term that saw the teams trade open threes, the third quarter saw the vast majority of points scored in contested situations. Having coughed up 91 points to the Caps less than a week ago, Flames coach Katrina Hibbert had made that a focus coming into this game.
“We focused on rebounding, defensive transition, and being physical, up and in, not making it easy for the opposition to move the ball and find easy scores,” Hibbert remarked. “We know we can put the ball in the hole, that’s not the question, it’s about our desire and will to do the hard stuff and the one-percenter stuff.”
Fire coach Shannon Seebohm also noted the impressive manner in which the Flames defence stood up after halftime. However, the ex-Flames coach also recognised that his own charges may have become a little too happy to shoot from outside, with Townsville hitting 15 of 31 from deep.
“Obviously (three-point shooting) is a weapon, but I feel like we need more of a balance, we need an inside-out game. I felt like tonight we didn’t put enough heat on the basket at times in the paint, and we were making shots, so I think had we have done that, we would have had more open looks, got the scoreboard ticking over a little better.
“Credit to them, they toughened up defensively in the second half and made things hard, but I just felt we could’ve attacked the hoop a little bit more aggressively on some pick and rolls and close-outs, things like that that we were making happen, we may have been able to score a few more points.”
One Flames player who has been part of the highest of highs and lowest of lows during her stint with the club is Shanae Greaves. A member of the 2016/17 championship winning team, the ex-Melbourne Boomers forward put in the kind of performance that sparked brief memories of that title run. Two points and four rebounds in 15 minutes doesn’t make for pretty reading in the box score, but the box score doesn’t have a column for defensive effort. One particular 30-second passage stood out. Having knocked down a jumper to tie the game at 60-apiece, Greaves found herself matched up on defence against crafty Belgian guard Julie Vanloo. But the Flames forward kept her position, eventually drawing a charge on Vanloo, with the Fire import’s reaction drawing a technical foul. From there, the momentum shifted, but the play itself not only capped a superb night from Greaves, but from the entire Flames bench.
“We had some great minutes from different role players off the bench. Shanae came out and banged, and that really made a difference in the post, and she got on the boards,” Hibbert stated. “So, it was really just looking for that energy, and that hard work, where we can be a point of difference, and the girls did that tonight.”
Hibbert also noted the lessons that she is learning in her first season as a WNBL coach, which includes figuring out the most productive way to use those players on the bench. There may only be five players on the court at any one time, but five players alone will not win you games.
“When you want all that hustle play, it fatigues your starters, and this is a learning curve for me as a coach. it’s important to say, ‘I want you go to hard, and I’m going to get you some subs so you can get some rest.
“And then when you (the bench players) come on, it’s your role to keep that intensity and harass and get all over defensively and crash the o-boards and do the one percenter stuff. And we’ll rest you and get the starters back in and get those minutes back so they can find that balance and get that rest. So, you’re not fatigued down the track, fourth quarter, we can still knock shots down and play good D.”
And knock down shots they did. Anyone who’s followed the WNBL remotely closely knows that Alex Wilson can bury threes, whilst import Jessica Kuster’s shooting, although not always consistent, has commanded respect since her days at Rice University. Two consecutive baskets from outside from the American, both off passes from Kunek, demonstrated another point of emphasis as Hibbert looks to build the Flames back to the level the fans have come to expect in recent years, whilst Kuster finished the game shooting 7 of 8 from the field for 17 points.
“We’ve had a focus on not being terminal when the ball goes in. Posts get it, it’s like their opportunity to go one-on-one - it’s like, well read the defence and see what’s happening, because a lot of time the collapse is happening,” the first-year coach revealed.
“So, I thought we did a better job of recognising that, and we found our shoots, Willy (Alex Wilson) hit some shots, Jess had her feet set and that was a point of difference, and great vision from our posts to see it.”
The home side took an eight-point advantage into the final minute before Fire star Abby Bishop knocked down a three to make things interesting. However, unsportsmanlike fouls on Fire import Bridget Carleton and then Bishop herself in the space of six seconds quickly erased any real chance of the visitors reeling in the deficit as the Flames iced the game at the line to secure an 82-73 victory.
Two wins was all the Flames could manage in 21 games this season. This year, it’s taken them just six. Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves and expect a championship - even a playoff berth may be a bridge too far this season. Rebuilding from a two-win season doesn’t generally happen overnight, and even this was far from a perfect performance. However, pieces may just be shaking their way into place. Tahlia Tupaea continues to steer the team around the court with aplomb, whilst new arrival Colleen Planeta remains the same reliable member of the frontcourt that she was in Adelaide. Brittany Smart is also yet to return from injury, which will add an extra weapon to the backcourt rotation.
For these Flames, it looks as though it will be a slow burn.