The reigning WNBL coach of the year, Cheryl Chambers, again has her Flames side (currently 4th, 9-6) up to their necks in the finals race. Some familiar names (Belinda Snell, Asia Taylor) and returning Opal Katie-Rae Ebzery have all been productive, though a string of injuries and some close losses have presented obstacles as the side chases back to back titles. Here, Chambers talks to the site about life as defending premiers, the reshuffle caused by Tahlia Tupaea's absence and more.
How have you found playing as defending premiers? Does it feel like you’re ‘the hunted’ now?
There is a bit of a sense of that, but I think the league is so good this year. To be quite honest, there are so many quality teams that it feels like everyone is hunted.
You’ve had a couple of close losses. Is a bit of an adjustment not having Leilani Mitchell there to get you through those clutch moments?
Absolutely, she was a star and we do miss her. I think the thing that has hurt us the most though is that we wanted Tahlia Tupaea to play point guard, but she injured herself before the season started. We’re still hoping to get her back. But Leilani was a class act, so certainly any team would miss her.
Are you missing a bit of scoring punch with Tahlia Tupaea out?
Well I think Katie is doing a fantastic job as point guard, but the 2 is her preferred spot, that’s what we recruited her for, so it’s taken her out of her preferred position. As a team, we’ve lost a bit of our running game and are having to do things a little bit differently from what is natural to us. Having said that, we’ve been in most games, so it’s just a bit of massaging that’s needed.
Moved to point guard out of necessity, Katie-Rae Ebzery has ranked in the top 10 for both assists and steals.
What does Katie-Rae bring to the team off court?
She’s been a real leader. As a 2-man playing the 1, she’s been doing a great job. She brings a lot of poise and a lot of experience, she keeps us together and she’s been fantastic.
It seems like Asia Taylor has gone up another level after a great season last year…
She’s developed and is certainly a better player than she was last year. We’ve been trying to help her with some of the 3-man skills, but you’re right, she’s got better every year. Jen Hamson as well, I think she has improved this year.
With Jen, she seems to have cut down the fouls lately. Is that something you’ve specifically worked on?
Yeah, we can’t have her sitting on the bench for that long. There had been a couple of games where we’ve been doing recovery the next day and it’s dawned on me she doesn’t need to do it because she’s been sitting on the bench with fouls so long.
We want to keep her out on the floor, so we’ve been working with her and she’s been making adjustments and now some of those 50-50 ones are not being called fouls any more, which is great.
Jen Hamson has led the league in blocks, with 2.47 per game.
I thought Ally Wilson might have snuck into the Commonwealth Games squad. Is she far off that level?
No, she’s not. There’s a few around the league that would be in that next group. The European tours only allow for 18 players, so we’ll see in the next little while who is in the wider squad. But Alex is still working on her game and hopefully she can sneak into it.
How do you go about allocating minutes between the four guards (Hayley Moffatt, Sarah Graham, Susi Walmsley and Cassidy McLean) that you can bring off the bench in different games?
It’s been a bit hit and miss. Cassidy McLean has been doing her year 12, so we’ve hardly seen her, she’s been affected by that. Her development has been a little slowed, but that’s fine, we would certainly encourage any year 12 student to do their best. Her future’s bright and there’s lots of time for her.
With the bench, it just depends on what the team needs. They bring very different things. Sarah Graham is a pure, flat-out scorer and shooter, so we will bring her in when we need that. Hayley is more of a defender and Susi can come on and do a bit of backup 1, it just depends on what the game requires.
Sydney are only 7th in field goal attempts this year. It’s a very patient offence, but are you looking to get more easy transition points?
Absolutely (laughs). But our balance is a little out at the minute, with not having Tahlia. That’s the way it has to be right now, but hopefully we can sneak some wins and allow Tahlia to come back in and play some minutes.
Carly Boag has had some big games lately, do you think she’s in the best form of her career?
Yes, I do. She’s certainly been working hard and training hard, so when those things happen and you’ve built up that skill base, then when opportunity comes you can reap the rewards. That’s what’s happening now, she’s reaping the rewards.
Chambers, pictured here with the Melbourne Tigers, played 261 WNBL games before moving into coaching.
Will you do anything differently ahead of the Double header (with the Sydney Kings) this weekend?
It’ll be different, it’s not really a home game for us, we have to travel to the other side of Sydney and we won’t be able to get on the court the morning of, it’s not our normal routine. But hopefully there will be a big crowd there and they’ll help get us over the line.
How challenging has it been managing fatigue with the shorter season?
It’s been a bit foreign and a bit different. The teams that have a bit more depth are in better shape now because they can share the minutes around. There’s not a lot of time to train, so it does make it especially difficult to work with your rookies when you’re on the road and you want to do a bit extra training with them, but there’s just no time. I think it’s something we just have to get used to. It is a learning curve.