WNBL Semi-finals preview: Flames v Fire
Not for the first, second or third time in her career, the influence of Suzy Batkovic looms large over this semi-final series. The Townsville centre remains the WNBL’s leading inside presence and her ability to pick up cheap points, though Sydney have a capable big defender in Jen Hamson, one of the few players to have a height advantage over Batkovic. Still, the Flames will look to help on Batkovic as much as possible, with bench bigs Carly Boag and Shanae Graeves likely to be used in short spells to play physical defence and crash the offensive boards.
Teams have found it difficult not to give away fouls on Batkovic and Sydney will particularly want to keep the explosive Asia Taylor in the game as long as possible. Double teams on Batkovic will open up outside shots for Mia Murray (36% for the season) and Micaela Cocks (37%), who looms as something of an X-factor in the series, having exploded in last year’s finals series where she upped her productivity and was MVP. Expect Sydney to go under screens against point guard Natasha Cloud, and live with her shooting the three where she is only hitting on 21% from distance this season.
A huge reason why Sydney should be favoured in this matchup is their versatility; they can push Belinda Snell to small forward and may look to run Townsville around with three guard lineups including Tahlia Tupaea, whose form since returning from injury demands playing time. Leilani Mitchell is the clear #1 point guard in the league and has rounded into form at the right time of year, giving Sydney the edge in the backcourt.
Another intriguing player in the Sydney rotation is Sarah Graham. She hasn’t been required in some recent matches, but her long-range shooting (an eye-popping, league-leading 56% for the season) provides immensely valuable floor spacing and could net points in bunches if the Flames offence goes into a lull.
The defending champion Fire will not give up their title lightly and are a well-balanced squad, ranking third in both offence and defence. Overall, however, Sydney look to have too much depth and versatility over the course of the series. Further good news for Sydney is their irresistible form (8 wins in a rows) and they fact they were able to give their stars some rest as they coasted to a win over Adelaide in the last round.
Prediction: Sydney 2-1.