Reigning champs Townsville, new clubs Perth Lynx and SEQ Stars and fresh-faced Dandenong Rangers will contest the opening week of WNBL finals this weekend.
Townsville host Perth in a major semi-final on Sunday but are coming off an 82-69 defeat to the Lynx in Perth last round.
Triple league MVP and competition leading scorer Suzy Batkovic has won and done it all in the WNBL and says the Fire are primed for a crack at back-to-back titles.
“Our start to the season was rocky, we had some new players come in who were starting for us so it took a little while to get the chemistry going,’’ she said.
“As the season’s progressed we’ve got much better and finals have come at a good time, we’re peaking at the right time and our defence has taken another step up, it’s looking good at the moment. We’ve been improving every week, whether it’s something small or something big. Our cohesion is what is definitely getting us over the line, we’ve settled and everyone has their roles down pat.”
The Fire has contested the past three season deciders and Batkovic believes that finals experience is like gold.
“We’re lucky to have a fair few players back from last season’s championship side but we’ve got some new ones who have settled in really nicely,’’ she said.
“Hopefully in finals we’re on the same page and with the personalities we have I believe that will be the outcome - everyone will be pretty calm, ready to go and ready to fight.”
The rebranded Lynx, in their inaugural season under the same ownership as the NBL’s Perth Wildcats, return to finals after a 15-year absence.
Star forward Louella Tomlinson, basketball royalty whose parents Ray and Sandra represented Australia, says her side has exceeded its own expectations.
“At the start of the season we ourselves probably didn’t even think we’d be so successful, when you start with a new team it’s an unknown so everyone is really excited,’’ she said.
“People know their roles and are able to play them consistently. I think our structure does benefit the strengths of the players and that’s definitely been helpful for us in the back end of the season.
“Andy (coach Andy Stewart) said at training last week that we’re in the finals, that’s a goal we’ve achieved but now we’ve got to move on and prepare for the big games ahead,” said Tomlinson.
Californian-born guard Sami Whitcomb (who is averaging 19 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists) and forward Betnijah Laney (14 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists) who debuted for the Chicago Sky in the WNBA last year - have been instant success stories.
“They’ve done so well for us,’’ Tomlinson said of the imports.
“Sometimes when you’re a new player in the league you can come in with no fears, not knowing all the players and you’re kind of advantaged because you can play how you know to play, to your strengths and people don’t really know what they are.”
A month ago SEQ Stars were on the verge of collapse when the club went into liquidation. On Saturday night they face Dandenong Rangers in the elimination final.
Captain Rachel Jarry said the Round 16 pair of wins over Adelaide then Perth were season defining as the Stars climbed back into the top four.
“We had finals as a goal coming into the season, but we’ve come up against a lot of adversity in the season and to overcome that it’s been a really special first year. All the girls are excited for Saturday,’’ she said.
“That week we went into liquidation was a bit of a nightmare and so emotional. At 5pm the day before the Adelaide game we didn’t even know if we’d be playing that weekend, or again this season, so to come out and get two massive wins on the road and really set our finals hopes up was huge.
“I just think it speaks volumes of the character of the team,” said Jarry.
The Rangers have been surprise performers under first-year coach Larissa Anderson who has guided a young, new-look side to third place.
Guard Aimie Clydesdale said despite back-to-back losses there was a good mood around the team, which has won a stack of SEABL titles together.
“I think it was a rebuilding year for Dandenong, but we still placed high expectations on ourselves to do well. It’s just a really good achievement for such a young team and a new coach, put together this season, and we’re really proud to be playing finals,’’ she said.
It’s been a rollercoaster campaign for the 22-year-old point guard who has worked her way up to the national league from the club’s junior ranks.
“After so much excitement and build-up pre-season, I was excited with the girls we put together and then I was voted in co-captain,’’ she said.
“I hurt my knee Round 1 so to go down was really disappointing, and quite a challenge, but it really doesn’t matter know, I’m back and just looking forward to finals.”
WNBL finals, week 1
- Saturday, 7pm
- Dandenong Rangers v SEQ Stars
- Dandenong Stadium
- Sunday, 3pm
- Townsville Fire v Perth Lynx
- Townsville RSL Stadium