When the WNBL schedule was announced for the 2019/20 season, many had yesterday’s Cup Eve match up between the Melbourne Boomers and Southside Flyers penciled in as a potential clash between championship contenders. Fast forward a few weeks into a highly competitive season, and those dreams were realised - both teams were undefeated, vying for sole position atop the ladder.
It's appropriate that the Michelle Timms Cup, bearing the name of one of Australia’s greatest players, would be contested by the two strongest teams in the WNBL? It’s a narrative that writes itself in its glorious simplicity.
What would follow was almost just as simple, as Southside proved that they are quite possibly in a league of their own. Save for a late run anchored by heroic efforts from Boomers guards Lindsay Allen and Sophie Cunningham that pulled them within five, the Flyers controlled the match from whistle to whistle. The final score, 81-74, left the Southside Flyers as the only WNBL team with a spotless record.
Leilani Mitchell was her usual shifty self, using her ball handling prowess to knife through defenders, while Mercedes Russell made her presence felt early and often on both ends of the floor. All five Flyers starters broke double digits in scoring, while Aimie Clydesdale added another 6 points from the bench.
“I think that’s something that we want every night, to be quite honest with you,” coach Cheryl Chambers said of the starters’ dominance. “We don’t want to take contested shots when we’ve got great players out there that can take the next pass or the next look, so it’s part of what we want to do.
“You don’t want someone to get 30 and then four other people not to score or whatever. It’s certainly something that we pride ourselves in, and I’m really excited about it. [We’ve got] different modes depending on how they defend us, and who’s playing well and who’s not playing well.”
If the efforts of Cayla George (22 points, 13 rebounds) were herculean for Melbourne, the Flyers’ starting five proved themselves the veritable hydra. When the Boomers had zeroed in on Mitchell in an attempt to slow her blistering start, Rebecca Cole rose to the occasion. Former Boomer Jenna O’Hea, who appeared to have had a fairly uneventful game, quietly added 13 points.
Sara Blicavs was another key factor, chipping in 16 points, 3 boards and a pair of assists as she continues her meteoric return to elite level play, only two years removed from a gruesome ACL injury.
“She’s coming through such adversity to get here. You really love when a player starts to shine, and she’s starting to find her feet again,” Chambers praised. “Not only on the offensive end, but I think on the defensive end she’s doing a great job for us. Really proud of her, and I think her best is still to come.”
The Flyers could have been excused if they had lacked some bounce in their step — coming off a slugfest with Bendigo just one night prior — but this was just business as usual. They didn’t look at all fatigued; in fact, they were anything but.
“I thought we were fantastic,” Chambers said. “Coming off last night - it mattered, but we certainly weren’t going to use that as an excuse. We were going to push and defend, and I think the girls just dug in and defended and rebounded and scratched and found a win.”
Through six games, the Flyers starters have each averaged around 15 points: Russell now the leader at 15.7, to 15.3 for Cole and Blicavs, 15.2 for O’Hea, and 14.7 for Mitchell. All five have eclipsed ten points in four games, and in the other two, four starters managed that feat.
Mitchell and O’Hea combined for 40 points in the first win over Townsville, O’Hea and Allen then notched 37 against Perth. In week 3, Blicavs exploded for 23 points; her and Cole tallied 44 in their thriller against Bendigo.
Playing against Southside has become a game of pick your poison, and even the normally unflappable Boomers couldn’t find an answer for how to contain all of that talent.
“As always, really proud of my team that we battled all the way to the end,” said coach Guy Molloy, whose 54th birthday undoubtedly ended on something of a sour note. “Got ourselves in a hole, 15 down through the third into the fourth.
“Give full credit to the other team for playing a terrific game and not letting us get into the style that we wanted. It’s a long season and it’s early in the season, just proud of the effort of the players. Lots of things didn’t happen for us, but we’ll fix those and rebound.”
If you think this is a statement game for Southside, you probably haven’t been paying attention. Coach Chambers has been careful not to buy into subtext even before the season started, and she continued with that mindset here.
“I just think it’s a win, I don’t know if it’s a statement,” she said after the game. “It’s only six games in and there’s a heap more to come.
“It’s a good win, and we’ll enjoy it for a little while, [but] we’ve got another one on Thursday, so we don’t have a long time to enjoy it. But I don’t think it’s a statement.”
For the rest of us however, we will continue to eagerly assign as many plots and anecdotes as we possibly can, because the Southside Flyers are absolutely overflowing with them. Preventing unforeseen circumstances, they should continue to be favoured in each of their matches moving forward, though they could potentially hit a roadblock in their next match - hosting the defending champion Capitals on Thursday with hardly any time to catch their breath.
Of course, they have no shortage of heroes to rise to the challenge, and tonight, Mercedes Russell was the one who wore the cape. She was an absolute bully, playing a game high 36 minutes and 45 seconds while hitting 100% from the field and leading her team with 19 points. She also grabbed 11 rebounds, dished out 3 assists, tallied a block and all but sucked the air out of the Boomers’ sails.
“I think we complement each other very good, we play alongside one another very well - especially today,” she said postgame. “Coming in with both teams undefeated, it was a huge game for us to win. Especially coming off last night, a good one for us, but playing back to back is always tough, so it was a really good win for us tonight.”
Who will be the next to rise for the mighty Flyers? It’s an unenviable task for anyone standing across from them, and so far, they seem nigh untouchable. Pardon the hyperbole, but as Gandhi once said, untouchability is a hydra-headed monster.
How very circuitous.