By Lachy France
Brydens Sydney Uni Flames will travel to Townsville knowing that a win will secure a place in the WNBL Grand Final following a resounding 111-69 win over the visiting Fire in Game 1 of their semi-final series. Alex Wilson starred for the Flames with 27 points, whilst Leilani Mitchell and Asia Taylor scored 19 points apiece. Suzy Batkovic was the leader for the Fire, scoring 18 points, whilst Mia Murray notched up 17 points for the visitors.
Despite a tough opening possession, the Flames managed to get the ball in the basket at their first opportunity with Alex Wilson grabbing an offensive rebound and finishing from close range. Kayla Standish got to the line for the Fire on their first offensive possession, and soon the game was tied 2-2.
Defence was a focus for both teams early, with open looks coming at a premium. However, when one came it was Alex Wilson knocking down a three to extend the home side’s lead. Leilani Mitchell converted an and-one after being fouled going to the basket in transition and in a blink the Flames were up 8-2.
Suzy Batkovic soon came into her own, quickly putting four points on the board and setting up Micaela Cocks for a three pointer to bring the Fire within two as the 5 minute mark in the opening term ticked past. Asia Taylor picked up her second foul just afterwards, which ushered in the media timeout with the scoreline reading 12-10 in the Flames’ favour.
Alex Wilson got the Flames’ offence back in rhythm out of the timeout, hitting her second three of the contest. Foul trouble continued to plague the Flames though, with the visitors spending the entire back half of the first quarter in the bonus. This allowed the Fire to pull within a point of the lead before Wilson hit a tight turnaround jumper to take her personal tally to 10 after just 7 minutes.
As the first term wound down, the game remained tight as both teams continued to lock down on defence. With a minute to play, Belinda Snell drew contact and got the turnaround shot to stick, before converting the and-one. The Flames’ skipper performed the exact same move on the next play, and whilst she couldn’t draw a foul, extended the home side’s lead to 22-16. Lauren Nicholson swished a buzzer-beating corner three as a late run put the home side up nine after 10 minutes of play.
Leilani Mitchell opened the second quarter scoring with a contested deep two as the home side threatened to blow the game wide open early. Although the Fire continued to draw fouls with ease, some inaccurate free throw shooting let the home side off the hook early in the quarter. Belinda Snell quickly made the visitors pay, scoring two quick baskets to put the Flames up 32-17 and force a timeout from Fire coach Claudia Brassard.
Kelly Wilson torched the Flames two seasons ago for Bendigo in a preliminary final, and coming out of the timeout looked as if she had the intent to do exactly the same with two quick baskets, but Shanae Greaves and Alex Wilson countered with more points for the Flames to keep the lead at 15. However, Darcee Garbin drew the foul on Jennifer Hamson and converted the and-one to trim it back to a 12 point game. Shortly after, Garbin managed to draw and convert another and-one, but with the Flames offence firing, the margin remained in double figures deep into the half.
Suzy Batkovic led from the front for Townsville throughout the second quarter, getting into excellent position and drawing fouls, but the Flames continued to maintain the margin. A prayer of a three pointer from Leilani Mitchell bounced off the rim but Tahlia Tupaea was able to rob the Fire of the rebound and bring up the 50 for the Flames in the final minute of the term. Shanae Greaves added two more points in the dying seconds and the first half ended with the Flames up 52-37. Alex Wilson led all scorers with 15 at the main break, with Suzy Batkovic contributing a team-leading 14 points for the Fire.
The Flames opened the second half just as accurately from the field as they ended the first, as Jennifer Hamson knocked down a shot from midrange. Next trip down the floor, Asia Taylor finally scored her first points of the game, and converted the and-one to give the home side the first 5 points of the half. Alex Wilson made it 8 straight points with a corner three before an Asia Taylor steal and fast break lay-up put the Flames up 62-37 with just over 2 minutes played in the third quarter, forcing Claudia Brassard to call a timeout.
The timeout did little to stem the flow in the short term. Alex Wilson hit a corner three and then dropped in a floater to send the Flames up by 30 before the Fire finally hit their first basket of the quarter four minutes in.
Asia Taylor was also firing after a lacklustre first half. The Flames star import scored 10 points in the opening five minutes of the third quarter after going scoreless throughout the first half, but the Flames were firing all over the court. Leilani Mitchell tipped in a pass from Belinda Snell for a spectacular lay-up for her 15th point of the contest and a 76-44 lead for the home side.
Despite the visitors’ best efforts, the shots just weren’t falling for Townsville throughout the third quarter, whilst it felt like the Flames were shooting through a hula-hoop. However, Mia Murray scored 8 of the Fire’s first 11 points, playing a lone hand on the offensive end. Meanwhile, Wilson continued to fill it up at the other end, moving to 27 points by the end of the third quarter. The Flames shooting guard also received plenty of help as Leilani Mitchell and Lauren Nicholson pitched in.
Heading into the dying seconds, Natasha Cloud brought up Townsville’s 50 with a three pointer, but Tahila Tupaea replied with a half-court buzzer beater which took the Flames to a 90-51 lead with a quarter to play.
Things slowed down a bit as the fourth quarter began with no points for either side for the first 90 seconds until Asia Taylor managed an acrobatic lay-up. 45 seconds later Taylor was doing the exact same thing, taking Mia Murray off the dribble and connecting from close range.
The Flames brought up their century midway through the fourth quarter through Asia Taylor, but not before a pretty pass from Chevannah Paalvast found Suzy Batkovic under the basket for the stalwart’s 18th point of the game as the Fire continued to battle despite the margin.
Late in the game some Flames rookies were afforded a bit of finals experience as Newcastle products Lara McSpadden and Susannah Walmsley hit the court in the final five minutes. As time ticked down, Townsville were able to trim the margin but the Flames had this game in the bag long ago. McSpadden drew a foul on Jacqui Zelenka and knocked down the resulting free throws for her first career finals points, before coming up with a block down the other end just seconds later.
Micaela Cocks knocked down a three on the break for the Fire, but a foul on the next play sent Susannah Walmsley to the line. The rookie connected on both to rack up the first points of her WNBL career after going close on so many occasions prior. Sarah Graham then fed Lara McSpadden in the post as all 12 players on the Flames roster received a decent set of minutes. A last second Townsville shot rimmed out and the game ended 111-69 in the Flames’ favour for a dominant victory.
Sydney Uni Flames 111 (Wilson 27p; Mitchell 19p, 3a; Taylor 19p, 3r)
Townsville Fire 69 (Batkovic 18p, 10r, 5a; Murray 17p, 5r; Garbin 10p)