The Evening Game

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WNBL: Bendigo coach Simon Pritchard reflects on #WNBL17: "We're all about championships".

WNBL: Bendigo coach Simon Pritchard reflects on #WNBL17: "We're all about championships".

“The thing that stands out to me is that we conceded the least points of any team” Bendigo Spirit coach Simon Pritchard says of the team’s 2016/17 campaign. “But at key points, our defence broke down”.

          The anomaly of the team’s greatest strength deserting them at times summed up a puzzling season which saw the team produce some masterful defensive performances, but also endure some extremely costly lulls which resulted in a sixth place finish.

          In the first half of the competition, the Spirit were downright miserly, grudging only 66.08 points per game, In the back half, they allowed a far less imposing 76.25 a game.

 Kerryn Harrington with the steal and fast break points. Her injury-enforced absence would prove costly for Bendigo.

Kerryn Harrington with the steal and fast break points. Her injury-enforced absence would prove costly for Bendigo.

Along the way, the hard-nosed team had managed to completely shut down grand finalists Dandenong, who could only manage a miserable 44 points and hassled eventual champions Sydney into a 55-point outing. Oddly, the team also seemed to do better when on the second leg of a back-to-back, compiling a 4-1 record in these games.

          Boasting a 10-5 record at one stage, the Spirit went into a major swoon in January, losing four games straight. This stretch included a 41-point shellacking at the hands of Perth, where both Sami Whitcomb and Ruth Hamblin ran riot. “Emotionally, it shocked the hell out of us” Pritchard says of the loss to the Lynx.

          Pritchard believes a big part of this dip can be explained by the lengthy break the players were given around Christmas. It’s a mistake he takes responsibility for and one Bendigo won’t be making again. “That was a really poor decision on my part” he says. “The long break allowed some deconditioning. Ideally, we would have brought them back five days earlier”.

         Major injuries also hampered Bendigo’s campaign, with veteran guards Jane Chalmers and Kerryn Harrington both going down after the former played through a thumb injury in 2016. After the Spirit had already lost Kelly Wilson to Townsville, their loss hit particularly hard. “We had two injuries in the same position” Pritchard says. “To lose both of them and to have to shuffle a heap of players, it had a compound effect down the line”.

 Pritchard on Kelsey Griffin: "a match winner"

Pritchard on Kelsey Griffin: "a match winner"

          The silver lining of this injury cloud was that it allowed Kara Tessari to gain valuable exposure to WNBL level competition, and the 17-year-old, one of the team’s many juniors from regional Victoria, thrived. “She’s a great defender and controlled the team really well” Pritchard says. Having been elevated from a development player spot to the senior list during the season, the team sees Tessari as very much on the ascent. “She’ll be an important piece going forward. We’ll certainly look to give her more of a role”.

          Long-term, Tessari may be able to help with an area where Bendigo struggled this year, namely perimeter shooting. The Spirit made just 102 three-pointers, only one ahead of last-placed Adelaide and, remarkably, behind the individual three-pointer tally of Sami Whitcomb (105). Their overall three-point percentage was 26.42%, again only good for seventh. “That was a personnel thing” Pritchard notes. “We need to recruit into that spot next year”.

          The Spirit had sought to bring in more long-range shooting by signing Seattle Storm player Blake Dietrick, but she couldn’t recapture the shooting form she previously showed at Princeton. “We thought we were recruiting a better shooter than we did” Pritchard laments. “We did expect Blake Dietrick to do a bit better job than what she did, offensively and defensively”.

 Kelsey Griffin and Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe were the team's star players. Here, Griffin throws a bullet pass inside for Raincock-Ekunwe.

Kelsey Griffin and Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe were the team's star players. Here, Griffin throws a bullet pass inside for Raincock-Ekunwe.

          The club’s other import, super athletic Canadian Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe, proved a revelation at both ends of the court. Scoring mainly around the basket (she had only 11 three-point attempts, for one make), she ranked amongst the competition’s most efficient players.  She put up 15.88 points per game (good for eighth in the league), collected 8.38 rebounds (fourth in WNBL) and ended up earning an invite to training camp with WNBA team New York Liberty.

          The club are hopeful of getting Raincock-Ekunwe back next year. Although they have secured their financial future, they do have budgetary restrictions to contend with which mean Raincock-Ekunwe may play as the team’s sole import.       

          Kelsey Griffin, who started as an import before becoming an Australian citizen, is another player who the team are desperate to retain. The thought of Griffin, who has won two championships with Bendigo, playing for another team just seems wrong. “Kelsey is a match-winner, she’s proven that over a long period” Pritchard says. “It’s just a matter of whether we can keep her”.  

          With Raincock-Ekunwe and Griffin, the team’s strength was in their frontcourt, where Griffin also chipped in with scoring (15.13 a game), typically outstanding defence and rim protection (27 blocks). Popular centre Gabe Richards was again hard to keep off the boards, though her scoring was somewhat down from past all-star five efforts, slipping from 15.50 in 2015/16 to 7.58 this season.

 Gabrielle Richards muscles to the hoop against the Flames. "She's a really smart basketballer" Pritchard says.

Gabrielle Richards muscles to the hoop against the Flames. "She's a really smart basketballer" Pritchard says.

          Pritchard suggests there are a number of reasons for Richards’ lower numbers. “We changed our offensive structure this year, so she wasn’t getting as many of those baseline looks” he says. “Though she also had some good looks that she missed, she was maybe a bit unlucky there”.  He backs Richards to continue to be a high-level contributor. “She’s a really smart basketballer. We need to find a role that maximises what she can do”.

The team finished on a strong note, with Nadeen Payne coming off the bench to hit 14 and then 16 points in consecutive one-point victories against Melbourne and finals-bound Perth. Underrated guard Heather Oliver also had strong all-round performances in both games, while Raincock-Ekunwe hit a long two to seal the game against Perth. In many ways, the closing stretch summed up the Spirit at their best: tough, intense and confident that Raincock-Ekunwe and Griffin would make the clutch plays to get them over the line in a dogfight.

 Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe hits the game-winner against Perth.

Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe hits the game-winner against Perth.

Those last two wins meant the team finished with a 13-11 win/loss record, which Pritchard agrees would normally be enough for a playoff berth. But the Spirit have zero interest in settling for consolation prizes. “We’re all about championships” Pritchard says. “There’s only first”.

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WNBL: Guy Molloy talks Melbourne's brush with extinction, working with Lauren Jackson and dancing with Bec Cole

WNBL: Guy Molloy talks Melbourne's brush with extinction, working with Lauren Jackson and dancing with Bec Cole