One Shot at Glory: QBL Semi-Final preview

This week The Pick and Roll spoke with some of the key players in the upcoming 2018 QBL semi-finals. I have collaborated with fellow hoops man and Nothing but Net Media anchor Jon Guarna to get his thoughts on these match ups.

Women's Semi-Finals

Southern District Spartans @ Ipswich Force

When: 6:00pm, Saturday, 18 August Where: Llewellyn Stadium

Ipswich beat Mackay 95-72 in the quarter-final after showing how they have combined to create a strong structured unit that shares the workload among all players. This was demonstrated through Georgia Williams and Gintare ‘GG’ Mazionyte who both compiled 20-point games and the squad’s star showing her skillset to finish only a single assist off a triple double (12 points, 17 rebounds and nine assists). Coach Brad George delivered the masterstroke of resting his stars as much as possible when they had a dominant lead; this will be greatly needed in the semi-final. To enter their first grand final series they must replicate this shared workload and take the pressure off Amanda Johnson ('AJ').

The Spartans are the defending champs and a different squad from last season, but are hungry to take this game. They eliminated the Sunshine Coast Phoenix 89-64 with Ambrosia Anderson leading the way with 29 points, four rebounds and two assists.

When they clashed earlier this season, the Spartans were missing key attack weapon - and cult hero - Aja Parham who gathered 16 points, two rebounds and four assists last weekend. Parham delivers in finals basketball as was shown in the 2017 grand final series, and she will be ready for business Saturday night.

"One of our key strengths is you have to guard all five of us for the whole game and it really makes opponents have to work defensively to do that," Parham shared. "We also play unselfishly so we really pass and shoot the ball across the squad."

Spartans coach Bec Stephens was clear on what was required from her team this weekend.

"This season has been very different," Stephens explained. "We have players from all over the world that are all at different stages of their careers. We were late getting our full roster together, but their willingness to come together has made it really enjoyable. Finals are won with defence so we have to limit Johnson, slow them down in transition & execute."

Force Coach Brad George also reflected on the season, knowing they too had unfinished business.

"They are a great group of girls who do anything for each other when the going gets tough," outlined George. "That’s the reason we have had such a great season. No one complains they just do what’s asked of them and do what’s best for the team by playing their role. Against Mackay we just played our style of game that we have all year and tried to take them out of theirs and force them to take shots they don’t prefer.

"The Spartans are an extremely talented, deep roster and have numerous players with many years experience playing all over the world in top leagues. So we will be keen for the challenge."

Lithuanian import Mazionyte shared that she had enjoyed her experience in Australia this season.

"Australian basketball is a completely different experience for me in general," said Mazionyte. "I didn’t know what to expect when I first came here. It seemed a little wild to be honest! When we first played Spartans this season I had only been here for two weeks. We have really improved across the season and we are a really structured unit now as you can see."

Williams explained the shared workload of the Force roster.

"It was a really great game to start our playoffs off with because that shared workload really does catch teams off guard," Williams said. "Most teams base their scouts off a focus on AJ so that allows us to mix it up and try new things in our play."

It was a sentiment shared by Johnson, but she advised her side would experienced a new challenge against the Spartans this time around.

"I’m so proud of how we came out and really have established our identity as a team and from the jump ball we really established control," Johnson stated. "We really have not competed against the Spartans at full squad so this is a brand new team. They were without Aja and their imports, so what is to come against this side is a real question mark but it’s something I am really excited about."

Jon’s thoughts: If the Force can get contributions from players other than Amanda Johnson, like they did against Mackay, then they have a great shot. The Spartans are the deeper team, and Anderson can carry them offensively if necessary. I see this one being tight, with Spartans winning by five.

My thoughts: These two sides have weapons across the court and will need to use them all to take the win. I have complete respect in AJ and what she brings to a side and she should easily win league MVP, however Ipswich must share the workload among all members to win. It will be tight, but I see the Force ladies stamping their ticket here and winning by three.

Rockhampton Cyclones @ Townsville Flames

When: 6:00pm, Saturday, 18 August Where: Townsville 106.3FM Stadium

The Rockhampton Cyclones really showed their dominance when they let their imports run, eliminating the Pirates 93-81; Aaryn Ellenberg amassing 38 points, 11 rebounds and six assists.

Townsville beat the Seahawks 87-64; the Seahawks really fought to show they were not here to make up numbers and will continue that into next season. The Flames highest contributor in terms of stats was the young, versatile and talented Miela Goodchild who added 19 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. She has carried her form from last season with the Logan Thunder through to Townsville and was rewarded with Gems squad selection earlier this week. She will not be playing for the Flames when they take on the Cyclones however, as she heads off to college at Duke. Yet Darcee Garbin’s return from Opals duties should be an easy cover here and once again showcase this squads silky combinations.

"It has been great playing a starting five role with the Flames, especially alongside players like Micaela [Cocks] and Darcee," shared Goodchild before heading off the the US on her next adventure. "With Darcee returning for the semi-final it will really add the extra punch and it will make the bench players confident to step up."

Cyclones head coach Chris Muggeridge is aware his squad faces arguably their biggest challenge of the season against Townsville this week.

"Finals basketball is a different beast," explained Muggeridge. "As a team you must lift to another level to be successful. The Cyclones this season have been a super confident team full of very talented athletes and I thought it showed on Saturday night with a dominant and entertaining win against South West Metro. The Cyclones did this with our biggest superstar Shanavia Dowdell on the bench due to injury also. Confidence, trust, respect and the will to win for each other got us over the line and we will take that belief and momentum into this weekend’s blockbuster game against Townsville.

"Townsville are stacked and have some of the best athletes in the QBL. What makes them so good is they play as a whole unit. They have weapons all over the floor. They are fast, mobile and push the ball hard in transition. We will have to make sure our transition defence is spot on. Playing our game, controlling tempo and decision making will be the key to success. If we play to our strengths I have no doubt we can steal a win in Townsville."

Townsville head coach Mike St-Maurice was confident that his side can defend their home court against the Cyclones.

"It’s been a really enjoyable season," St-Maurice enthused. "I had half of this group last year and we added some nice pieces to that in my second year that have been complementary. We've got a great development stream for the young women here in Townsville and that's evidenced in the rotations we use.

"From the last game we took the fact that we can get the job done even when our star players are out. It's been a season of moving pieces in and out on a weekly basis so that was nothing new. Winning by 20-plus in a finals game without one of our MVP candidates is a testament to our depth."

Jon’s thoughts: Rocky will be extremely confident after winning at South West last week behind a huge game from All-QBL guard Ellenberg while the Flames will also come in confident after winning without All-QBL forward Garbin. I think this game will come down to bench play, with Townsville winning a close one by seven.

My thoughts: This will be a high-scoring game and I see Townsville winning by no more than ten points in a competitive clash.

Men's Semi-Finals

Brisbane Capitals @ Townsville Heat

When: 8:00pm, Saturday, 18 August Where: Townsville 106.3FM Stadium

Through my interviews one thing has become clear; this Brisbane Capitals side runs a style of play unlike the other playoff teams. This was seen even further when the Capitals won 106-95 in overtime over Rip City, pushing the classy Sunshine Coast side from buzzer to buzzer.

Tim Coenraad is that workhorse for hire that any team would love to have, brought in to fill a void and deliver something this squad needed if they were to play deep into post-season. He has been given full permission to play and shoot however he pleases, and his teammates have put it on record that if they get him in open court to make the shots he will pull it off. He posted a quarter-final round high of 37 points, 13 rebounds and one assist, signaling he’s not ready to stay in Wollongong just yet.

"Townsville are a great team and are second in the league for a reason," Coenraad explained. "They beat us relatively comfortably a few weeks ago. Their size is the real issue for us. We are the lowest seed and not expected to win so it’s a great opportunity to play loose and do the things we have to do to get the win."

Capitals head Coach Geoff Tarrant brings an old school mentality of coaching mixed with pure basketball IQ along with the knowledge and experience in what it takes to win and do it often. While speaking with him you can hear the raw passion and desire to mentor his pack to heights that they are underdogs to achieve against this red hot Townsville side.

"Our game against Rip City was definitely a game of two halves," Tarrant outlined. "First half, it seemed like we were playing not to lose rather than playing to win. After losing Dusty Rychart to injury it really meant we had lost that genuine fear factor. Once Timmy [Coenraad] joined us, it brought that back to our squad. It’s more of a mental thing - he doesn’t ask for permission but rather dictates the ball with his non verbals and dominant playing style.

"Big guys like Froling - who can both catch and shoot out as he can - are our Achilles heal. Mick and I really coach and train with the squad to teach them how to close out a game and slow that down so we will keep with that game plan to continue that. Nothing that we coach at the Capitals is out of any textbook - it’s our own stuff that we have built over the six years that I have coached here. We may be a small squad but we are small and aggressive across the court."

They have a Goliath-like challenge ahead of them on Saturday night against the Heat. After a first three-quarter rally brought by the Rollers, the Heat walked away victors 100-92. They’re the defending champs and want to go back-to-back. Josh Wilcher is all class and is ready to get the job done as leader. Then there is the seven-foot-tall, 20-year-old dynamo Harry Froling, ready to take the championship with his team en route to his first season in the NBL.

"The main goal for us this week will be the same as last time we took on the Capitals and that would be to take Timmy out of the game," Froling stated. "Ever since he has come in he has been a spark for that side, it’s important for us to keep playing tough and physical like we have through the season."

Townsville's head coach Rodney Anderson is fully away of the challenge ahead.

"We only played them two or three weeks ago so the scout is still pretty fresh on our minds," said Anderson. "The Capitals love to drive pretty hard to the basket and try to score layups and always try to take threes. A really big focus on man-to-man focus in this one.

"Jordair has been training with the Hawks and Harry with Adelaide, and it’s really given them a new zest for the game and they will be excited to get a win in this one. We have a really deep roster and a strong starting five so it’s just a case of getting our ducks in a row and fighting for that back-to-back championship."

Jon’s thoughts: Brisbane comes into this on the back of an overtime win on the road so you know they will be very confident, although their loss in the ‘ville a few weeks back will be fresh in their mind. The Heat did not play their best game of the season in the quarter-finals and will need a much better team game to get the win in the semi's. The Caps will give Townsville everything they can handle but I see the Heat winning this one by four.

My thoughts: Full respect to this Caps side but I see Townsville dominating and winning by at least 12 points here. Froling is really fighting for MVP status here and will be ready to post bulk points and show what he will bring to the NBL.

Cairns Marlins @ Mackay Meteors

When: 7:00pm, Saturday, 18 August Where: Mackay Basketball Stadium

The Meteors beat Rockhampton 92-74 last week to progress to this semi-final. Having finished the regular season as ladder leaders and only just missing the championship last year, they are peaking coming into this match. Todd Blanchfield is in the renaissance of his career and credits his return to the QBL for his form reinvigoration.

"That was a large part of the reason I wanted to come back to the QBL They had been trying to get me back to Mackay," Blanchield shared as to the reason behind his return to the QBL.

"This place is home for me, holds a special part in my heart and really did a lot for me as a junior. So to be able to come back and give back to this team and it was a great fit for both myself and the squad. I have had a few years in the NBL, showed signs but wanted to be a better player and to come back here and perform each week it has really helped me improve and build into that player I want to be.

"Christian Jurlina shot something like 8 from 9 against Logan on the weekend, and will come in this game ready to do the same. He was our training guy at the Sydney Kings last year so I know how he can shoot the ball and he is really dangerous. Then you have guys like [Antony] Fisher who is another guy who can really get going and we cannot let that happen. They have a few deadly weapons on that squad."

Meteors coach Cam Tragardh backed up Blanchfield’s comments.

"It's going to be a really tough battle for us," acknowledged Tragardh. "Jamie [O’Loughlin] is a great coach and I thought his game plan against Logan was spot on. They hit 15 three's but also accumulated 24 free throw attempts and 40 paint points. We need to make sure we are disciplined, and pick our poison. We have to take some aspects of their game away. It will be a great test for us."

Captain and league great Chris Cedar, strong addition Nelson Larkins and huge spark plug Titus Robinson will all be ready to fire and fight here.

"We are well aware that playoffs are a fresh start and that upsets are a possibility," added Cedar. "Just look at the Marlins on the road against a hot Thunder side, winning 112-94."

Cairns simply could not miss a shot and Jurlina stood out, adding 32 points, three rebounds, five assists, and once again showing he is a star on the rise. With continued displays such as this he will be rewarded with minutes for the Taipans in the coming NBL season. There is continued shrugging off of this side as real contenders for the title and I can see a dominant performance against Mackay washing this all away.

"That talk adds to the motivation for us to prove it all wrong," Jurlina explained. "The squad was absolutely stoked and we are ready to head on the road feeling fresh and really ready to take on this Meteors side."

Marlins coach Jamie O’Loughlin acknowledged his side lifted against Logan last week, something he would be looking to replicate again.

"Against Logan I feel that was the sharpest we have been all season if I’m honest," O'Loughin said. "This week we will be looking to replicate that sharpness against a completely different opponent in Mackay.

"They finished top of the ladder with the best record in the league - they are the big dog and they are expected to win the whole thing. They are built to win the championship and get it done. But this is playoffs and time for our guys to stand up again."

Jon’s Thoughts: The Marlins sprung a mini-upset with their dominant road win against Logan. Jurlina led a three-point barrage for Cairns while Michael Nwelue had his best game of 2018. Mackay also handled their quarter-final matchup behind a well-balanced attack. This one is really tough to tip, but I'm going to go with Mackay by seven because of their big game experience and home court advantage.

My Thoughts: Game of the round here for me. I would love to see Mackay get another shot at taking a championship but I think this Marlins side and their young star Jurlina will spoil the party. Throw away the home court advantage as this does not even cross Cairns’ minds. I cannot wait to see what happens here but see Cairns heading into a grand final playoff series off the back of another replicated shooting clinic in a high scoring affair with a tight finish.

Watch #QBL18 Live Online

You can watch 2018 QBL action live and free online: check the schedule for dates and times.