By Lachy France
Led by Asia Taylor’s 25 points and 11 rebounds, Brydens Sydney Uni Flames got the best of the defending champion Townsville Fire, 78-72, in a third tight battle between the two sides this season. Taylor was ably supported by Alex Wilson, who scored 15 points, whilst Suzy Batkovic top-scored for the Fire with 28 points. Kayla Standish and Natasha Cloud also reached double figures in points for the visitors.
The Fire opened the scoring through a Suzy Batkovic two-pointer from deep, and the reigning MVP quickly made it 4-0 from close to the basket. Four became six as Natasha Cloud hit in transition and the Flames took a timeout just 1:50 into the contest after failing to generate anything on their first four offensive possessions.
The Flames came out of the timeout far more energised, with Leilani Mitchell pushing the pace. The Opals point guard blew past her defender and connected on the lay-up to open the scoring for the Flames, but from there the points dried up for both teams. Neither team was able to manage a basket until the fifth minute of the quarter, when Kayla Standish put the Fire up 8-2 with a mid-range jumper.
Leilani Mitchell replied with a basket of her own before some excellent passing gave Belinda Snell an opportunity for a tough shot near the basket, which she connected on to reduce the margin to 8-6 before Batkovic collected her own missed shot for the putback and the basket as the offences began to heat up.
Whilst Batkovic scored the first 8 points for the Fire, the Flames’ scoring was far more balanced in the first quarter. The home side’s first 13 points were shared between four players as Sarah Graham’s three pointer gave the Flames their first lead with 3 minutes to play in the opening term. Asia Taylor followed that up with a three-pointer of her own to take her tally to 7 points.
Carly Boag scored the last basket of the quarter following a nice dish from Mitchell, who then blocked Micaela Cocks’ attempted buzzer-beater to send the Flames to the first break up 20-14, shooting 9-19 for the first quarter, with the Fire shooting 7-20 from the field.
Boag picked up where she left off, hitting a three to open the scoring in the second term off a drive and kick from Mitchell. As the teams traded baskets to open the period, the margin hovered between the 6 and 10 point mark for the first half of the second quarter. Batkovic kept the Fire in touch with 14 of their first 24 points, but a pair of three-pointers from Alex Wilson extended the margin to 37-24 just after the midpoint of the term. With both teams keen to jump the passing lane at any opportunity, deflections became common, but surprisingly the turnover count remained low as more than a few passes were deflected out of bounds or to another offensive player.
Leilani Mitchell gave up an unsportsmanlike foul as Natasha Cloud broke away in transition, which led to two free throws, before Mia Murray hit a three pointer and Suzy Batkovic knocked down a shot to trim the Flames’ lead to 37-31. Alex Wilson was unfazed though, hitting her third three-pointer of the quarter on the very next possession.
Sarah Graham knocked down a three of her own, but Natasha Cloud would hit the last basket of the quarter after the Fire managed to secure a foul under the basket to maintain possession late on to see the halftime score read 45-35 in the Flames’ favour.
Cloud opened the scoring in the second half from close to the basket, before Mia Murray and Kayla Standish followed up with baskets of their own to see the second half start the same way as the first – 6 points from the Fire followed by an early Flames timeout.
However, the timeout didn’t energise the Flames in the same way as Kayla Standish buried a jumper to bring the Fire within two points and almost completely erase the deficit. Affairs became slightly heated on the Flames’ next possession as Mia Murray and Asia Taylor both earned technical fouls following some choice words between players on both sides.
The Flames quickly erased any ideas of the Fire taking the lead in the short term though, as Alex Wilson and Asia Taylor both hit baskets to stretch the lead back out to 6 as things got slightly chippy between the two sides. The tension seemed to affect the teams’ play as well, with both sides perhaps pushing the pace a little too much at times.
The Fire were the first to get back into rhythm with four straight points, but the Flames managed to keep the visitors at bay for much of the third term. A pair of Carly Boag free throws with just under 4 minutes to go kept the home side 5 points up at 54-49, before Amy Kame fouled Lauren Nicholson during a rebounding contest with the Fire over the limit. Nicholson, who shot nearly 90% from the line during her senior year at Saint Mary’s, connected on both to push the lead out to 7. Nicholson then drained a jumper almost from the same spot to take her personal tally to 7 points.
As the teams traded runs, the Fire kept coming close, but the Flames managed to edge away on each occasion. A pair of Leilani Mitchell free throws very late in the quarter kept the Flames five points clear, and the final period started with the scoreline reading 62-57 in the home side’s favour.
Suzy Batkovic knocked down a deep two to start the final term and edge the visitors within three. Chevannah Paalvast then drew a foul on Sarah Graham in the paint and went to the line to split a pair. The Flames hit back quickly though with an Asia Taylor basket, but Batkovic hit yet another deep two and had the chance to tie the game with another, but the shot came off the back iron.
Alex Wilson had slightly better aim for much shorter range, dropping in a mid-range jumper as the teams traded baskets early in the term. The scoring dried up for a couple of minutes as both teams missed some easy chances and threw the ball away at times, but Belinda Snell knocked down a trademark three from the wing to give the Flames a 69-64 lead with five minutes to play.
Again both times went on a nearly two-minute dry spell, but once again it was the Flames that broke the drought as Asia Taylor powered to the basket for a lay-up before an excellent turnaround jumper from Batkovic cut the lead back to 5.
The final minute commenced with the Flames up 4 and in possession. Leilani Mitchell lost her dribble before regathering and shooting from the corner, from which Asia Taylor collected the rebound. The Louisville product earned an and-one and completed to see the Flames go up 75-68 with just 46 seconds to play.
Batkovic converted early in the shot clock to keep the Fire in touch, but Mitchell and Taylor managed to wind down the shot clock, with Taylor scoring right as the buzzer sounded to all but clinch the game for the home side, and the Flames ran out 78-72 winners to move to 4-3 for the season and edge within touching point of the top four.