By Lachy France

A fourth quarter explosion from the Bendigo Spirit against a Brydens Sydney Uni Flames team playing their fourth game in eight days has seen the visitors come away with a 70-55 victory at Brydens Stadium. Former Flames player Ash Karaitiana starred for the Spirit with 17 points, whilst Gabe Richards registered a double-double for the visitors with 12 points and 11 rebounds. Jennifer Hamson top scored for the Flames with 16 points, whilst Leilani Mitchell and Alex Wilson also tallied double figures for the home side.

The Flames won the opening tip but were unable to convert on their first possession as Kelsey Griffin tipped an attempted pass away, before Gabe Richards eventually opened the scoring for the game from close to the basket. Leilani Mitchell countered with a corner three but the Spirit had the early running, quickly going ahead 10-5 as turnovers crippled the Flames’ offence in the opening stages.

Lauren Nicholson, in her second start since Belinda Snell’s injury, quickly got the Flames back within two points, driving to the basket and converting the and-one. However, the Spirit continued to produce from close range in the opening term, taking advantage of Asia Taylor’s absence and scoring their first 16 points in the paint.

The Flames’ defence quickly kicked into action out of a media timeout, and with Leilani Mitchell and Jennifer Hamson hitting shots the Flames went on a quick 5-0 run before the scoring dried up for a couple of minutes with the scoreline reading 16-13 in favour of the Spirit. The baskets finally came in the last 30 seconds for both teams, as first Kelsey Griffin and then Shanae Greaves hit baskets to move the score to 18-15 but with the Flames desperate to find an answer to the Spirit’s interior offence.

That answer came, in the short-term, in the form of a Jennifer Hamson block which led to a Carly Boag lay-up on the break in the opening seconds of the term. Quickly the Spirit proved they’re no one-note song as Ash Karaitiana knocked down a deep corner two for their first points of the term. It wasn’t long before they were back attacking the paint though, forcing Flames’ coach Cheryl Chambers into a timeout as the Spirit extended the margin to 26-17 just three minutes into the second quarter.

A bit of hustle from the Flames saw the home side grab a basket from nothing out of the timeout, as Jennifer Hamson snared a loose ball to dish to Carly Boag under the basket, before an offensive rebound from Hamson cleaned up a missed mid-range shot from Alex Wilson to cut the lead to 5.

The Spirit continued to penetrate inside, with Gabe Richards drawing a foul close to the basket, but was only able to convert one of two free throws. The visitors’ defence also proved to be a problem for the Flames, who saw no less than four shots blocked in the first half. However, it’s tough to block an unguarded player, and Sarah Graham took advantage with a three-pointer to cut the Spirit lead to 29-24 with three minutes to play in the first half.

With both teams’ offences becoming a little erratic down the stretch in the first half, the scoring came to a halt despite some decent looks before Alex Wilson hit the most open three-pointer you could hope for. That would prove to be the final score of the half and the Flames went in at the break 31-27. Hamson and Mitchell led the Flames with six points apiece, but the home side shot just 34% from the field in the first half. Conversely, the Spirit shot 45%, but five three-pointers from the Flames kept the home side within touching distance.

The second half commenced with the Flames exhibiting their own interior prowess as Hamson opened the scoring from close range. The Flames’ defence then conspired to force a couple of stops, but Gabe Richards’ offensive rebound allowed Karaitiana a midrange jumper.

The erratic offence that plagued the sides through the back end of the second quarter continued early in the third period as both teams gave the ball away before Blake Dietrick finished a tough lay-up after driving to the basket. Karaitiana then added one of her own and soon the margin had extended to 37-31 in the Spirit’s favour midway through the third. Heather Oliver then knocked down a deep two from the baseline, but this time the Flames were able to respond through Jennifer Hamson. Sarah Graham then knocked down a crucial three from the top of the arc to move the Flames within five.

A media timeout came and went, and the teams traded baskets in the immediate aftermath. The last basket of the quarter would come from a sublime pass on the break from Sarah Graham, who threaded the needle to Leilani Mitchell who managed to release the ball a fraction of a second before she ended up out of court for an impressive lay-up to see the third quarter end up 44-40.

Ash Karaitiana opened the final term scoring after collecting her own blocked shot to hit a floater. The Flames hit back with an Alex Wilson three, but Karaitiana moved her personal tally to 17 with a three pointer and Kelsey Griffin knocked down one of her own to push the Bendigo lead to double figures with 8 minutes to play.

Wilson hit back with her second three pointer in quick succession to stop the rot, and Spirit coach Simon Pritchard called a timeout soon after, clearly not wanting the Flames to pick up any momentum. The Spirit were first to score out of the timeout through Nadeen Payne, but Lauren Nicholson countered with a basket of her own as the 5 minute mark ticked by with the scoreline reading 54-47 in Bendigo’s favour.

With the Flames requiring a strong final five minutes to reign in the Spirit, Alex Wilson created a bit of space and hit a clever mid-range jumper before the home side forced a timeout. Unfortunately, they couldn’t capitalise and instead Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe was next to score courtesy of a lay-up off a step-through to keep the Flames just out of arm’s reach at 58-49 with 3:21 to play.

Carly Boag wasn’t ready to put the cue in the rack though, picking off a Spirit pass and laying the ball up on the break on the first possession out of the timeout. But without stops, the Flames found it ever harder to trim the deficit, and when Gabe Richards earned and converted an and-one, the margin was 10 with under two minutes to play.

The Flames continued to find looks but the shots wouldn’t fall, and with the Spirit in the bonus the visitors were able to extend the lead out to 15 from the charity stripe, with the game finishing 70-55. The Flames will take on Dandenong next week, looking to take advantage of a far less hectic schedule in the lead-up to the Christmas break.

Sydney Uni Flames 55 (Hamson 16p, 8r; Wilson 10p, 6r; Mitchell 10p, 5r)

Bendigo Spirit 70 (Karaitiana 17p, 3a; Griffin 13p, 9r, 5s; Richards 12p, 11r)

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