When the questions ended and it was time for coach Cheryl Chambers and Asia Taylor to file out of the championship game press conference, the good-natured banter between the pair showed no signs of wrapping up. They couldn’t help themselves.
This is the kind of chemistry that gets you championships and for the Flames, it was there almost from right from the start. Two games into the season, they had a team meeting to address the defensive lapses which saw them begin the season with a pair of losses. Yet the mood was one of complete confidence.
“We all looked around the room and thought ‘You know, this is a pretty special group’” Chambers says. “We had a mix of old players and young players, introverts and extroverts, but there has always been a pretty good feeling within the group”.
The idea of creating a cohesive unit, that got on off the court and would play for each other, was central to putting the squad together and preparing for the season. “Teams that have won championships and been successful have great chemistry” Chambers says. “We did some weird and wacky things that would connect us”.
Beyond the chemistry, it was a shrewdly assembled group, both deep and balanced, giving Chambers, returning to WNBL coaching for the first time since 2009, a multi-faceted, shape-shifting team to work with.
The aforementioned Taylor ended up fitting the team like a tailor-made glove, but Chambers says signing the Louisville alum was a difficult process. “It was quite nerve-wracking” she says. “I always find it hard to recruit someone I haven’t physically seen so I kept saying to her agent ‘Can I see some more film?’ I wanted more and more film…but we were really keen to get an X-factor”
Asia Taylor had a quick first step that made her a handful; here she blows past Adelaide's Coleen Planeta.
Taylor was all that and more, giving the Flames points in bunches and proving a nightmare matchup for every team with her explosiveness and deceptive strength. While Taylor was the team’s heat check wildcard, heady veterans Leilani Mitchell and Belinda Snell were invaluable steadying presences.
Snell was entering her nineteenth season in top-flight basketball, but her game has always relied more on excellent fundamentals, high-level shooting and basketball smarts than raw athleticism and she remained mightily effective, ranking high in assists per game (5th), points per game (17th), and steals (13th).
Snell’s ability to cover multiple positions was a key facet of a Flames team that could go big with strong rebounders like Shanae Graeves and Carly Boag teaming with Taylor and the imposing Jen Hamson in the frontcourt, and using Snell at shooting guard. They could also go small, playing multiple guards.
Most of the backcourt players rebounded well above their height, with Snell, Lauren Nicholson and Tahlia Tupaea all coming up with enough boards that teams couldn’t really punish their shorter lineups. Even the tiny Mitchell collected her share of long rebounds. Chambers said Snell ended up playing much more power forward than the team expected, but the team’s malleable nature proved a real asset.
Belinda Snell had more assists than any non point guard in the league. Here, she spots a Leilani Mitchell backdoor cut before anyone else and throws an exquisite pass. (Video powered by ephemeral images with thanks to WNBL used with permission)
This off-season, Snell will be one of the assistant coaches for Sydney’s new SEABL team, the Sparks, and Chambers says she has the basketball knowledge to succeed in this new role. “If something’s not working on court, she’s always got an idea to fix it and it’s not always about her, she’s very selfless”.
Leilani Mitchell was also invaluable, playing the most minutes of any player in the league (1042). While every other team had a swoon at some point of the season which led to a run of losses, in the back half of the season Sydney started to do that thing all champion teams do: win games without coming close to playing their best. In matches against Melbourne, Canberra and Adelaide, they struggled for rhythm, but on each occasion Sydney had Leilani Mitchell and the opposition didn’t, so Sydney won.
Chambers particularly remembers Mitchell’s nerveless approach as she hit the game-winner against Canberra: “She just coolly looked up and saw what he had in front of her and decided to run a closeout play”. The run of close wins gave the team irresistible momentum and by the grand final series they had won ten in a row and looked inevitable champions.
Leilani Mitchell consistently made big clutch plays. Here, she hits a game-winning jumper against Canberra. "She just coolly looked up and saw what she had in front of her" remembers Chambers.
Ranking first in assists and second in steals, Mitchell was the ideal point guard: always thinking team-first, but more than capable creating her own shot or scoring herself. Perth coach Andy Stewart suggested Mitchell wouldn’t have been far off the league MVP. “She was a very, very difficult cover for us, not just with her scoring, but her ability to play-make and find the open shooter”.
Sarah Graham led the league in three-point percentage with 54%.
Those open shooters represented yet another strength for the Flames, who shot 38.90% from distance, the best of any team. Snell, Mitchell, Wilson all made more than 50 three-pointers at a good clip, while Tupaea and Nicholson were effective at lower volume. As if this wasn’t enough to torment teams, they could throw in Sarah Graham, who had the competition’s highest three-point percentage (54%).
On the defensive end, the Flames protected the rim ferociously and comfortably had the most blocked shots of any squad. Jen Hamson used every inch of her 6’9 wingspan to tally 63 blocks, first in the league. When Hamson was able to avoid foul trouble, she was a real handful, piling up rebounds as well as setting good picks and rolling hard to the rim. “One night (the players) came off and I said, ‘Wow, you’re defending well’” Chambers recalls. “Someone said ‘Yeah, that’s because Jen is out there changing every single shot’.
"Jen is out there changing every single shot". Jen Hamson was the competition's leading shot-blocker.
Ally Wilson was one of the most improved players in the competition and came up huge in the post-season, rampaging towards 27 points against Townsville. Chambers had coached Wilson previously in junior teams and considered her “a great athlete” who was ready to contribute more at WNBL level. “In the pre-season I said to her ‘I think that there can be huge improvement in you’” Chambers says. The season saw Wilson expand her game significantly, increasingly showing an ability to break defenders down off the triple and cut to the rim for easy baskets. She also handled some huge defensive assignments with aplomb, restricting Perth phenom Sami Whitcomb to 4/17 shooting in an important home win.
Ally Wilson had her best WNBL season, showing new dimensions to her game.
Lauren Nicholson was another strong addition, making some big threes late in the season and playing low turnover basketball. Despite the enviable depth that players like Nicholson gave them, the Flames were tested by injuries at times, with Snell, Taylor and Nicholson herself all missing games, while Tahlia Tupaea sat out half the regular season with a foot injury and Hayley Moffatt had the wretched luck of sustaining an ACL injury in the opening game.
Tupaea contributed steadily at both ends after returning, giving Sydney a starting calibre guard off the bench and chipping in 18 points and 10 rebounds in the series-clinching victory over Townsville. Tupaea seems to have been around for a while, but at just 19 she is easily one of the top prospects in Australian basketball and on track to be a future Opal.
Joining Tupaea in the youth department were Cassidy McLean and Lara McSpadden, who had both been members of Australia’s all-conquering under 17s team. Chambers says McLean has “unlimited potential” and the nimble guard impressed the team with her competitive nature. “At training, she certainly didn’t take a backwards step” Chambers says of McLean. “She always wanted to match up with Leilani”.
The Flames have some great young prospects alongside their experienced core. Here, Cassidy McLean assists on a Tahlia Tupaea basket.
The team’s other rookie, centre Lara McSpadden, projects as a good rebounder and shot-blocker and moves well for a big. Chambers likes her fundamentals (“She’s pretty tenacious, she can find the ball”) and was won over by her work ethic. “She’s really motivated, I never had to go and find her to do individuals, she was also into me first to do them”.
So far, Wilson, Snell, Graeves and McSpadden are contracted for next year and Chambers is not underestimating the difficulty of keeping this stacked squad together, noting that as the Flames were playing in the semi-finals, other eliminated teams were already at work on identifying talent and planning for next year.
“There will be big budgets coming after our girls” she says. “But it was a wonderful year, and anyone who wants to come back, we’d absolutely love to have them”.
Asked whether the grand final win has sunk in yet, Chambers says “The enormity of it is probably still to come”. It may take a while to adjust to their new status as champions, but the Flames made a little bit of history this year. It’s a victory that will longer long; as Chambers told her players after the final siren sounded: “We’re bonded forever”