The Bendigo Bank Spirit have lost control of their WNBL play-off destiny following an 83-77 loss to arch-rival Townsville at the Bendigo Stadium on Sunday.
The six-point defeat leaves the Spirit with an 11-10 record with three games left in the regular season.
Not even a hat-trick of wins in their last three games against Canberra, Melbourne or Perth could be enough for the Spirit to make the play-offs after fourth-placed Townsville improved to 13-9 with two crucial wins over the weekend.
The Spirit’s six-point losing margin – their fifth defeat in six games since the Christmas-New Year break – was trimmed back from what had been a 25-point deficit early in the third quarter.
After a lackluster first half the Spirit – led by captain Kelsey Griffin – lifted their defensive intensity and got the crowd involved in the game as they unleashed a 27-10 run during the third term, including 13-0 at one stage, to gain the momentum.
A Nadeen Payne three-pointer on the three quarter-time buzzer cut the margin to eight points, and after what had earlier looked a lost cause for the Spirit at half-time when they trailed 49-28 had the makings of perhaps one of their greatest against-the-odds triumphs.
However, the Fire looked like they had weathered the Spirit storm when they got back out to a 13-point lead with 5:50 left in the final term.
But in a game of momentum swings the Spirit surged again and when Griffin nailed a three-pointer with 28 seconds left, Bendigo trailed by just two.
Yet they were the last points for the Spirit as Fire star Suzy Batkovic scored the last four of the match through free throws to put an end to the gallant Bendigo comeback – and most likely the Spirit’s play-off aspirations, too.
Earlier, the Fire took control of the game with a 15-0 run in a four-minute burst during the second term that turned their 25-21 advantage into a 40-21 lead.
The Fire shot the lights out in the first half, with their 49 points including 17-of-29 from the field (58.6%) compared to Bendigo’s 10-of-34 (29.4%).
In what became a game up for grabs late, the Spirit were also left to lament missed opportunities from the free-throw line (13-of-20).
Griffin shouldered a heavy load offensively for the Spirit with 28 points, including five three-pointers.
Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe, who returned to the starting line-up, had her second double-double in a row of 12 points and a season-high 14 rebounds, while Blake Dietrick scored 12 points off the bench, including seven in the last term, and five assists.
In her 150th WNBL game, Kerryn Harrington scored five points for the Spirit.
Batkovic (31 points, seven rebounds, four blocks) was a major thorn in the side of Bendigo and loomed large from the outset when she scored 11 points in the first quarter.
Dual Spirit championship player Kelly Wilson had nine points, nine rebounds and six assists for the Fire.