By Lachy France,
A single win is all that stands between Brydens Sydney Uni Flames and the club’s first WNBL title since 2001 after a 91-82 win over Dandenong Rangers in Game 1 of the Grand Final series. Alex Wilson led the Flames with 22 points, whilst Jennifer Hamson, Leilani Mitchell, and Asia Taylor all finished with 15 points. Sara Blicavs led Dandenong with 25 points and 8 rebounds, with Steph Cumming and Natalie Novosel also finishing in double figures.
The Flames won the opening tip and Asia Taylor immediately went to work, dropping a basket in from close range. Ally Malott elected to go the slightly more long-range route as a frantic start to the game saw the teams combine for 10 points in the first 80 seconds of play to see the Flames lead 6-4.
However, both teams’ defence improved slightly from there. The scoring slowed but the Flames maintained their tight margin until midway through the opening term when Steph Cumming drove to the basket to tie things up at 10-10. Sara Blicavs then gave Dandenong their first lead of the evening, completing a tough shot to move the Rangers to a 12-10 lead. Asia Taylor quickly hit back, but the teams continued to trade baskets throughout the first quarter.
Free-flowing play prevented the media timeout from coming until nearly 7 minutes into the term, with Jennifer Hamson earning the and-one from Ally Malott to put the Flames ahead and stop play. Hamson completed the three point play to put the Flames up 17-14, but Rangers stalwart Jacinta Kennedy countered with a pair of free throws after drawing the shooting foul from Belinda Snell.
As the quarter wound down, the game remained on a knife-edge. The Flames’ lead reached four late in the term on a Lauren Nicholson three-pointer, and a high scoring quarter ended 26-22. Some questionable offensive strategy from the Flames late in the piece offered Dandenong a last second shot, but Sara Blicavs was unable to convert. With the turnover count low and the foul count even lower, the fans were treated to some brilliant flowing basketball in the opening term.
A couple of early turnovers to start the second quarter could have proved particularly costly for the Flames, but instead Tahlia Tupaea nabbed the inbounds pass on the third consecutive giveaway to put the Flames up 6. Sara Blicavs quickly narrowed that gap with two consecutive baskets, but Tupaea hit a deep two to maintain a slight cushion.
The cushion lasted mere seconds, though. Jacinta Kennedy drew a foul on Tahlia Tupaea with a clever pump fake and converted the and-one. Natalie Novosel then finished from close range and suddenly the Rangers had the lead. With turnovers continuing to plague the home side, Dandenong quickly moved out to a 37-32 midway through the quarter, their largest of the game.
Belinda Snell knocked down a three but Natalie Novosel hit one of her own as Dandenong maintained their lead. Whereas earlier it was the Flames owning a slight cushion, it was now the Rangers keeping the home side at bay as the second quarter wound down.
Enter Alex Wilson. The Flames three-point assassin knocked down a pair of free throws followed by a three to tie things up before an Ally Malott deep two put the Rangers back in front. Wilson hit a deep two of her own, but a last second basket to Blicavs gave the visitors a 48-46 lead going into halftime. Alex Wilson and Sara Blicavs played chief destroyer for their sides, ending the half with 15 and 14 points respectively.
Strangely, the teams looked more affected by nerves starting the third quarter than they did the first, with turnovers at both ends to start proceedings. Jennifer Hamson eventually knocked down the first shot of the quarter to tie things up from midrange. Alex Wilson then found Hamson under the basket to give the Flames a 50-48 lead.
Lauren Nicholson provided some excellent spark off the bench, and made a beautiful move in transition, going to the basket and drawing the foul. Despite being unable to finish, the Saint Mary’s product converted both free throws to put the Flames up 56-53. Steph Cumming’s shooting from the field was just as accurate though, and ensured the Rangers continued breathing right down the Flames’ neck.
Nicholson continued to knock down shots with aplomb, and quickly moved to 9 points for the game with a couple of midrange jumpers. But a Blicavs three put the Rangers back ahead 63-62 with just under 3 minutes to play in the quarter as the game see-sawed back and forth throughout. Blicavs and Leilani Mitchell traded baskets for a minute or two, with both players deadly accurate from outside. The Flames took the lead, 69-68, with 30 seconds remaining in the term on Alex Wilson’s tough finish from close range, and the quarter ended with the scoreline reading that way as the Rangers could not convert on their final possession.
Asia Taylor opened the fourth quarter scoring with a jumper from just beyond the free-throw line to move the Flames out by 3. The All-Star power forward followed that up with another from the elbow, but Rosie Fadljevic hit one of her own to trim it back to a three point game.
Taylor and Fadljevic got tangled up under the basket and Fadljevic was called for the foul, which led to a Rangers timeout with 6:41 to play and the scoreboard 74-70 in the Flames’ favour. However, despite chances for both teams, it took over a minute before Sara Blicavs finished from close range to halve the deficit. Aimie Clydesdale then wiped out the deficit entirely with her own close range basket, but Jennifer Hamson restored the Flames lead with a deflection into Belinda Snell’s hands at one end followed by the finish on the tight angle.
Alex Wilson knocked down a three and the crowd went absolutely ballistic to the point where the buzzer for a Rangers timeout became utterly redundant. Fortunately, the referees saw the call and granted Larissa Anderson her wishes with the Flames up 79-74 with 3:21 to play.
Natalie Novosel earned two free throws on a drive to the basket and split a pair, before Steph Cumming’s midrange runner drew the Rangers within two with 2 minutes to play. Leilani Mitchell responded with a deep two and made it a two possession game with the score at 81-77.
Novosel attempted to pick off a pass, but instead sent Tupaea to the line, where the young star knocked down the pair as calmly as you’ll ever see. The American atoned for her error on the next possession, but the Flames remained up four going into the final minute. Leilani Mitchell and Sara Blicavs traded threes, but the margin remained four at 86-82 with just 36 seconds to play as Cheryl Chambers called a timeout.
With the Rangers forced to foul, it was Belinda Snell who went to the line first. The Flames skipper hit both to put the Flames up 88-82 and it was then time for Larissa Anderson to call a timeout in an effort to give Dandenong a chance at the win. A quick three pointer was the obvious play, but Ally Malott was unable to connect and Leilani Mitchell secured the rebound. The Opals point guard was promptly fouled by Amelia Todhunter, and split a pair to push the lead to 7. That lead became 9 as Mitchell then got a steal and lay-up to ice the game, 91-82 and put the Flames up 1-0 in the grand final series.
Sydney Uni Flames 91 (Wilson 22p, 6r, 5a; Mitchell 15p, 6a, 3s; Hamson 15p, 8r; Taylor 15p)
Dandenong Rangers 82 (Blicavs 25p, 8r; Cumming 16p, 6a, 5r; Novosel 14p, 3r, 3s)