Southside have literally flown into their inaugural season. With a star-studded starting five, the Flyers had already exceeded early expectations across the opening 4 rounds of the WNBL season in establishing a 6-0 unbeaten record. However at Dandenong Stadium on a cold and miserable Thursday night, they encountered their first hurdle of the season, and it was fitting that it came against the reigning champion University of Canberra Capitals.
Unlike the Flyers, the Capitals entered their WNBL round 5 encounter having experienced a couple of bumps in launching their title defense - a tough pair of losses against the Deakin Melbourne Boomers and Sydney Uni Flames a little over a week ago. A lot can change in a week.
The visiting Capitals stunned the Flyers early, launching an 11-0 run across the opening three and a half minutes to have the league's hottest team reeling and forcing an early timeout from Southside head coach Cheryl Chambers. The Capitals were switched on and playing with intensity, forcing the Flyers into 4 early turnovers while also pulling down 5 offensive rebounds in those opening minutes. It would be a theme that would carry through the entire first half, and one from which the Flyers would ultimately never recover.
Kia Nurse was on fire from deep in draining 4 three-pointers across the opening term on her way to 17 in the first half, and Olivia Epoupa was seemingly everywhere in harassing the Flyer's guards. The versatility of Flyers forwards Sara Blicavs and Jenna O'Hea had seemingly been nullified, with Kelsey Griffin and Keely Froling showcasing their own capabilities and ultimately coming out. The Capitals were able to give the Flyers a dose of their own medicine, and were simply dominant across the first two quarters as they opened up a 23 point half time lead, a margin that ultimately proved the difference.
While the Epoupa versus Mitchell contest in the back court was enthralling, the battle between Mercedes Russell and Marianna Tolo was a sight to behold.
Russell managed to deliver her season average of 15 points, and at times was one of the few Flyers players, along with Mitchell, to trouble the Capitals in the first half. However Russell only pulled down 5 rebounds for the night, with Tolo playing her best game since returning from injury, a fact not lost on the Opals centre in speaking to The Pick and Roll post game.
"Yeah, it's good!" exclaimed Tolo on being back on court and contributing for the Capitals. "It's crazy how long I have spent out over the last 4 years. One of the media people in Canberra was like, 'you realise that two out of the last four years you have had off!'"
Tolo, whose time on court has been managed so far this season, is no longer playing under any restrictions. She logged a season-high 23 minutes, moving freely while being able to score in quick movements out of the post and finishing off the pick and roll. She would go on to compile 16 points (6-9 FG) and 7 rebounds, and made an impact at both ends.
"I'm feeling pretty good actually - it's actually the best I have felt," Tolo added in discussing her recovery and any lingering pain from her foot injury. "After games is pretty good, but when I have two sessions in one day it gets sore after that."
The Capitals would lead from start to finish and were never threatened in the commanding 91-72 victory. Nurse led the way with 21 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists, while Froling continued her emergence in amassing a 20 point and 10 rebound double-double. Coupled with Epoupa's 15 points and 7 assists and Griffin's 14 points and 13 rebounds, the Flyers had no answer for the firing Capitals.
Such was the Capitals overall dominance of the contest, they owned the rebound count 48-31, a figure that included a staggering 23 offensive boards. When coupled with the 20 turnovers the Flyers gave up, the Capitals put up an additional 30 field goal attempts. Shooting 43% from the field, the lop-sided result should be of no great surprise.
Leilani Mitchell managed to provide the Flyers with a game-high 23 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists. Rebecca Cole added 12 point,s but was restricted to just 3 of 5 shooting. Sara Blicavs also scored in double figures with 12 points, but shot a lowly 4 of 12 from the field and coughed up 7 turnovers. Their captain Jenna O'Hea was well held to just 6, points and attempted only 5 shots for the game.
The Flyers entered the contest off the back of a challenging schedule, something that Capitals head coach Paul Gorris acknowledged post game.
"The Flyers have played three games in five days and we recognise that," shared Gorris. "There is a reason why they were 6-0, they are a great team and I'm sure they will bounce back."
Having struggled with their starts so far this season, the Capitals managed to off to a flyer against Southside.
"All of our games we have started slowly, and tonight we got it all together early," Tolo added. ""We have a some great talent on our team. Kelsey and Keely did a fantastic job tonight, but now we have to prepare for Melbourne."
While the game against the Boomers at the State Basketball Centre on Saturday night was now her focus, the excitement in her voice in speaking about her imminent return to the Opals program was obvious.
"I have not played for the Opals since 2017 - in the Asia Cup - so its been a long time!" enthused Tolo. "I don't think I have missed that much [time with the Opals] ever."
While it will be fantastic to see Tolo pull on the Opals singlet again in a weeks' time, the Capitals are once again a force to be reckoned with in 2019/20. In taking down the Flyers, they served notice to the rest of the league that the reigning champs still have plenty left in the tank.