The Evening Game

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WNBL: Andy Stewart talks semi-finals, road trips and  Sami Whitcomb's miracle year.

WNBL: Andy Stewart talks semi-finals, road trips and Sami Whitcomb's miracle year.

Coming off a run to the grand final which stunned many observers and helped secure Andy Stewart coach of the year last season, the Perth Lynx again hovered around the upper reaches of the ladder for much of 2016/17, before succumbing to Dandenong in a semi-final series.

          The Rangers had been a difficult matchup for them all year, with Dandenong winning three of their four regular season fixtures. Stewart agrees Dandenong’s greater depth was crucial in the 2-1 defeat. “I think we were one or two players light” he says. Dropping the last two games of the regular season may have also been costly, with Perth losing the chance to host the semi-finals.

          The Lynx again wholeheartedly embraced pace and space in 2016/17 and it made for entertaining basketball, with whippet-like point guard Tessa Lavey pushing the tempo and gun shooters like Sami Whitcomb, Carley Mijovic and Brianna Butler providing plenty of floor spacing.

          Whitcomb in particular was prolific from beyond the arc, taking more than half her shots from outside and making 105 three-pointers for the year. Remarkably, she had more three-pointers than two entire WNBL rosters, Bendigo (102) and Adelaide (101).

          Yet Whitcomb was more than a long-range gunner, showing phenomenal ability as both a shooter and shot creator, scoring from anywhere and everywhere on her way to the highest points tally ever recorded in the competition. “We saw glimpses of it the year before, but some of her exhibitions were quite outstanding” Stewart says. “It’s a shame she didn’t get (the MVP award), though there were two or three girls that were exceptional, with Suzy Batkovic and Leilani Mitchell”.

          Stewart says that every facet of Whitcomb’s offensive arsenal, including those crazy step-backs from well outside the three-point line, are all the result of diligent and persistent practice. “I don’t know of a person that works harder” he says. “She puts in an enormous amount of practice. Everything you see on court is the result of hours and hours and hours of time”.

 No player came close to Sami Whitcomb's tally of 70 steals. "She is extremely disruptive" Stewart says.

No player came close to Sami Whitcomb's tally of 70 steals. "She is extremely disruptive" Stewart says.

           While some prolific scorers get away with taking a breather on the defensive end, Whitcomb was a blur of action, continually turning up right where opponents didn’t want her, often successfully gambling for steals or using her explosive speed to get into passing lanes. She led the league for steals by some distance (with 70, Leilani Mitchell was second with 49) and picked up the club’s defensive player of the year award.

          “She is certainly a unique defender” Stewart says. “She’s not your classic ‘lock a player down’ kind of defender, but she is extremely disruptive. Her steals often ignited us into very positive periods of play”.

Andy Stewart on Carley Mijovic: “There’s not much in world basketball that is beyond her”

          Perth took the most three-point attempts of any team by far, doubling the tally of some rivals and attempting 300 more three-pointers than semi-final opponents Dandenong. Forward Carley Mijovic was a major part of their outside-heavy game, hitting 64 threes at 36%.

          It was another season of progress for Mijovic, who again claimed the club’s most improved player award. Stewart says she has the physical tools to be anything. “She’s a 6’6 three-point shooter who can run the floor really well” he says. “If she tackles it with tenacity, there’s not much in world basketball that is beyond her. She has a WNBA body and she’s just got better and better”.

 Ruth Hamblin and Carley Mijovic reject shots against the Bendigo Spirit. The pair had 98 blocks between them, the most of any two  teammates in the league. 

Ruth Hamblin and Carley Mijovic reject shots against the Bendigo Spirit. The pair had 98 blocks between them, the most of any two  teammates in the league. 

          The club was also well-served by Canadian import Ruth Hamblin, who provided shot-blocking and tough screens and showed a high basketball IQ on defence. Asked whether his approach on imports is to bring in the best available player or to recruit to a specific need, Stewart says his method is a bit of both. “You want a unique player, someone who will change the way opponents see you, but you also want a player that can plug holes which can’t be plugged by an Australian player”

 Perth were always looking to run. Here, Antonia Edmonson gets a fast break layup.

Perth were always looking to run. Here, Antonia Edmonson gets a fast break layup.

          Antonia Edmonson chipped in with some massive games, including six of six three-point shooting in a huge win over Adelaide. Stewart says he thought it was her best WNBL campaign and believes the Tall Ferns representative will continue to have some monster outings. “She won’t dominate every single game, but she’ll be a presence”.

          One of Edmonson’s back-court partners, Opal Tessa Lavey, saw her three-point shooting decline somewhat on previous years (26% in 2016/17), but she remained the driver of the Lynx’s high-octane offence and her ability to collect steals (36, equal 6th in league) was a big part of Perth collecting the most steals of any WNBL team.

          Lavey missed four games with an ankle injury early in the season, an absence Stewart says was one of the two major disruptions Perth faced, along with the injury-enforced replacement of their WNBA import Monica Wright, a popular figure amongst the playing group, with the sweet-shooting Brianna Butler.

 Tessa Lavey's quick hands led to 36 steals, good for equal sixth in the league. 

Tessa Lavey's quick hands led to 36 steals, good for equal sixth in the league. 

          Elsewhere, Opals member Nat Burton finished the year with averages of 3.9 points and 3.4 rebounds and seemed custom-built for Perth’s transition game. Her Olympic experience, however, meant she had a long and emotionally taxing off-season. “I don’t think it did benefit her” Stewart says. “I would suggest she went through a flat period after coming back, but how could you not?”

          At the other end of the experience scale was development player Tahlia Fejo, who saw limited minutes, but is seen as a long-term prospect for the club. “She’s a project” Stewart says. “It will be a while before she’s dominant”. Stewart says Fejo initially found the demands of being in a WNBL squad difficult, though notes “she certainly got a lot better at all that” as the season progressed.

          Speaking shortly before the team announced the key re-signing of Whitcomb, Stewart was hopeful of bringing most of the squad back but mindful that some players have families thousands of kilometres away and resigned to the fact that some retention decision would be out of the team’s control.

           Similarly, he is resigned to the greater travel demands Perth sides will always face, but is determined to see their isolated location as a positive rather than complaining about it. “It’s something you become really used to when you live in Perth…I think it’s become quite useful really, you bond on those long trips and you learn to make the most of it”.

We Went There: Wil Anderson's 'Critically Wil' at the Sydney Opera House

We Went There: Wil Anderson's 'Critically Wil' at the Sydney Opera House

WNBL: Dandenong coach Larissa Anderson on the Rangers grand final run

WNBL: Dandenong coach Larissa Anderson on the Rangers grand final run