By Lachy France
Brydens Sydney Uni Flames faced all manner of adversity this season. Between pre-season injuries, a slow start, and a questionably placed western road trip between Christmas and New Year, the team overcame all obstacles to emerge as WNBL champions, winning their final 12 games to ride roughshod over their finals opponents and take home the title in a sweep over the Dandenong Rangers.
The season started inauspiciously for the Flames, especially following injuries to integral backcourt players Lauren Nicholson and Tahlia Tupaea. The team managed to snare the star signing of Leilani Mitchell, but it took a while for the team to come together and before long the Flames were 0-2. There were certainly plenty of things to like about those first two performances, but starting the season with two home losses certainly put the team behind the eight-ball early.
The team quickly flipped the script, though. A tough away-home weekend against Bendigo and Townsville culminated in a pair of tight victories and the Flames were back on track, with the clutch performances setting the tone for the season. Despite going down to Townsville on their trip to the north, the team rattled off a five game winning streak to put themselves firmly in contention.
Christmas came and the Flames’ present was a trip to Adelaide and Perth whilst most teams enjoyed an easier week, if not a week off entirely, over the festive period. It was perhaps during this stretch that the Flames really showed their mettle and flicked the switch for their run to the title. Facing Adelaide in the first game of the road trip, the Flames cruised to an expected 89-72 win. Confidence was high, but the team had a game in their legs when they arrived in Perth to face a Lynx side that was in the hunt for the minor premiership at the time.
Evidently the circumstances weren’t playing on the Flames’ mind. Leilani Mitchell scored 27 points, whilst Asia Taylor finished with a mind-boggling 21 points, 13 rebounds, and 8 assists in a 93-69 demolition that kickstarted the Flames’ campaign. The Flames would lose just once more throughout the season, going down by 3 points to the University of Canberra Capitals in the first game of the new year.
An amazing run then ensued. With Tahlia Tupaea and Lauren Nicholson returning to the squad and Asia Taylor emerging as one of the true stars of the competition, the Flames continued to improve as the season moved into crunch time. Again the side showed their ability to perform in the clutch in a mid-February game against eventual grand final opponents Dandenong. Down by six with a quarter to play and shooting less than impressively, the Flames restricted their opponents to just 11 fourth quarter points. With the backcourt firing, the Flames overcame the deficit and Tahlia Tupaea iced the game with clutch free throws late for an 81-77 win which clinched the minor premiership with a game to spare.
From there, the Flames never looked back. A cruisy 98-83 win over Adelaide sent the Flames into the finals on an 8 game winning streak and on a high. It showed too, as the team put together one of the most comprehensive and astonishing performances ever seen in the 36 year history of the WNBL. Dismantling the defending champion Townsville Fire 111-69, the Flames set the record for most points in a finals game as well as the biggest margin of victory in a finals game. Alex Wilson shot 5-8 from beyond the arc on her way to 27 points, with the team shooting 54% from the field in an outstanding performance. The 76-61 win in Game 2 in Townsville sounds positively pedestrian by comparison, but to defeat the Fire on their home court at all, let alone by double digits, took a second massive effort.
The Dandenong Rangers had no designs on making things quite as easy for the Flames in the grand final, and took a 48-46 lead into halftime of a frantic Game 1. However, as was the case just a few weeks earlier, lockdown defence by the Flames in the fourth quarter set up a win as the home side extended a 1 point lead after three quarters into a 9 point win.
The Flames led by one at halftime in Game 2 in Dandenong, but the game had a very similar feel to it as Game 1. The Rangers took an early lead, but the Flames weathered the storm and tightened things up. However, it was the third quarter that saw the Flames shut out the Rangers this time. A 20-11 period opened up a double-digit lead for the Flames which they would not relinquish. Belinda Snell proved again that big players come up big when it counts, with 15 points and 11 rebounds despite only scoring 2 points in the first half. As the clock wound down, the result became increasingly inevitable. Finally, after some confusion, the final buzzer sounded and led to the kind of celebrations you would expect from a club that had waited 16 years since their last championship. The championship was also the first for the club under the Sydney Uni banner, a long-overdue reward for a program which saved the Flames when the team was in dire straits and ensured there would be a continued Sydney presence in the WNBL.
Whilst it would be easy to point out star names such as Leilani Mitchell and Asia Taylor – the team’s All Star 5 selections – as the central components of the Flames’ championship, that would be simply doing a disservice to a team that has come together spectacularly. Five players – Asia Taylor, Leilani Mitchell, Belinda Snell, Alex Wilson, and Jennifer Hamson – averaged double figures in scoring for the season, with Carly Boag, Tahlia Tupaea, and Lauren Nicholson all averaging in excess of 5 points per game. The rebounding was also shared throughout the team, principally shared by Jennifer Hamson and Asia Taylor, but with seven players snagging three or more a game. These may sound like “just numbers”, but they point to the fact that every player on this side was willing to do whatever it took to win. Whether it was Belinda Snell or Alex Wilson defending a position or two bigger when the Flames went small, or a player like Tahlia Tupaea coming off the bench after starting last season, there were no complaints, only outstanding execution. Credit must go to WNBL Coach Of The Year Cheryl Chambers and her team of coaches and staff for the culture that they have succeeded in creating.
A massive congratulations to all involved with Brydens Sydney Uni Flames.