Southside Flyers mortality revealed in narrow victory over Melbourne Boomers

Yesterday’s matchup between the Melbourne Boomers and the Southside Flyers was everything we could have hoped for and more. From the back and forth scoring duel between Melbourne young gun Ezi Magbegor and Southside captain Jenna O’Hea, to the late game heroics by Leilani Mitchell to secure the win for the Flyers, there was no shortage of narratives from start to finish.

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The result itself is not necessarily surprising: the Flyers are sitting high atop the WNBL ladder, now at 14-3, while the Boomers are left licking their wounds — their 12-5 record belying the fact that they have lost to their Victorian rivals in all three contests this season.

However, peeling back the layers, Melbourne has perhaps unveiled a formula for success that can be used to fell the otherwise insurmountable Flyers. Taken to the limit in overtime, we saw the best of Southside, while also being exposed to their biggest weakness.

It’s clear that their starting five is talented and versatile enough to bring the championship to Dandenong. Mercedes Russell is a menace in the low post, using her size and athleticism to bully her way to the basket, and leads Southside with 16.9 points per game. Rebecca Cole is Southside’s leading scorer with 284 points, and her average of 16.7 puts her just a hair under Russell.

Leilani Mitchell proves a crafty creator and fearless defender, averaging 15.9 points per game, while Jenna O’Hea’s shot selection from deep can prove backbreaking to opponents, bringing her average to 14.1. Sara Blicavs’ miraculous return from an ACL injury has been inspirational to see, and she rounds out the starting five with 13.6 points per game.

No secrets or surprises there, and Russell, Cole and Mitchell each rank in the top 8 for points per game in the league.

The concern comes from the precipitous fall once Southside turns to their bench. The starting five has 1,281 points this season, while the eight other players who have seen game action have combined for 154 points. Aimie Clydesdale is the leading contributor off the bench, averaging 2.9 points per game.

Of course, the bench players contribute in other ways, helping to facilitate the star players, but the situation has dictated that the starters must dazzle on a nightly basis if Southside hope to win.

Against the Boomers, this was not the case through four and a half quarters. Sara Blicavs had an uncharacteristically cold shooting night, going 1-12 from the floor and failing to get to the free throw line. Mercedes Russell was able to put 18 points on the board, but the duo of Cayla George and Ezi Magbegor proved to be something of a nightmare matchup in the early stages, as Russell was held scoreless through the first seventeen minutes of play. She had only put up two shots prior to that.

Couple that with a wincing Jenna O’Hea, whose ankle and wrist appeared to be bothering her as she put her body on the line (she played through the pain in an unfathomably gutsy performance that was both inspiring and, at times, hard to watch), and the Flyers were in trouble.

Southside’s supporting cast was completely blanked in this game. Not a single point from the bench, and only two shots put up in total; a pair of three point attempts from Kiera Rowe.

The Boomers led at the end of the first three quarters, provoking Cheryl Chambers to show her championship-level intellect by calling timeouts at key moments to snuff out Melbourne momentum. This game could have easily gotten away from them had Chambers not managed her team so well.

Melbourne were without star point guard Lindsay Allen in this contest, and Sophie Cunningham fouled out in the fourth quarter. Madeleine Garrick went down in a scary fourth quarter collision with a teammate, and Southside were able to capitalise on the Boomers’ depleted resources.

The record book doesn’t deal in ifs and buts, however one can’t help but wonder whether Melbourne would have been able to hold on to win a game where they seemed to be the superior team, had it not been for their misfortunes. Magbegor alone had Southside flustered, and her dominance opened up the floor for her teammates.

It may sound trite to say that the best way to beat Southside is by stopping their best players — is that not true of any basketball team around the world? Yet Melbourne proved that they have a winning formula to stifle the WNBL’s best team.

If the rankings hold up and this turns out to be a championship preview, then we’re in for one hell of a Finals series.

NOTE: The Boomers and Flyers donated gear for Sunday’s game to be put up for auction towards the Gippsland Emergency Relief Fund, and raised $15,000. If you would also like to help towards the cause and make a donation, visit the website.