By Lachy France
Brydens Sydney Uni Flames have started the WNBL season 0-2 as an early lead did not translate into a win against the UC Capitals, with the visitors running out 89-80 victors on the back of an astounding 38 point performance from Opals centre Marianna Tolo. Leilani Mitchell was the Flames’ star on the night, finishing with 20 points, 9 assists, and 9 rebounds.
Defence ruled the early portion of the game, with neither side able to put the ball in the basket until Marianna Tolo drew a foul on Jennifer Hamson with just under 2 minutes played, draining both free throws to open the scoring for the Capitals. The Flames’ first basket would come just shy of the three minute mark, but it was pretty when it finally came as Leilani Mitchell came up with a beautiful step-through before dishing to Asia Taylor for the lay-up.
With both teams pushing the pace early, the scoreboard should have been ticking over nicely, but with the teams combining to shoot 3-16 in the first 5 minutes of play, Alex Wilson’s midrange jumper took the score to just 5-4 halfway through the first term. Jennifer Hamson quickly followed that up with one of her own before Lauren Mansfield drove to the basket for the visitors as both teams started to find their scoring touch as the quarter progressed before the Capitals called a timeout with the Flames up 9-6.
Leilani Mitchell was clearly feeling it early, both as scorer and provider. With five assists inside 7 minutes, the Opals star then hit three treys in the space of a minute to push the Flames out to an 21-15 lead and force another Capitals timeout with 2 minutes remaining in the opening term, with the Flames eventually taking a 23-17 lead to the quarter time break.
The scoring came a little more easily in the opening of the second quarter, as the Flames scored on their opening possession thanks to a Leilani Mitchell runner off a long rebound from a missed Jennifer Hamson shot. The Capitals quickly hit back with six consecutive points and soon the margin was back within two and Flames’ coach Cheryl Chambers was forced to call a timeout just two minutes into the period. Lauren Mansfield would then tie the game on a runner of her own as the Flames’ offence stagnated slightly whilst the visitors fired.
Alex Wilson stopped the rot with a three-pointer just after the 3 minute mark, and a Capitals turnover allowed the Flames the chance to extend the lead, which Jennifer Hamson was able to do after getting on the end of some excellent passing from Belinda Snell and Asia Taylor.
The second quarter saw the Flames perhaps just edge the inside battle as Asia Taylor and Jennifer Hamson were able to nab a couple of quick baskets, but Marianna Tolo was not to be outdone, racking up 16 points in the first half and also tallying 5 rebounds and a block to keep the Capitals in touch throughout the second term as the Opals star showed exactly why she’s considered one of the best players in the WNBL.
Whilst Tolo may have been getting things done inside on offence for the Capitals, Asia Taylor was doing exactly the same for the Flames at the other end. Contributing 10 points on 5-11 shooting, the import power forward was key to the Flames keeping the visitors at bay deep into the half.
However, the final minute of the half saw the Capitals come right back into it. Down by 8 with two minutes to play in the first half, the visitors were able to score the final six points of the term to bring the margin back to 44-42 at halftime, with Leilani Mitchell, Alex Wilson, and Asia Taylor combining for 34 of the Flames’ 44 points.
The second half opened with Jennifer Hamson hitting a short turn-around jumper, but Marianna Tolo showed off her range, countering with a deep two from the wing as the Capitals star began to take control. A pair of free throws took the centre to 20 points and tied the game early in the third at 46-46 before Asia Taylor tipped home a rebound to restore the Flames’ slender lead. But a fourth foul for the American forced Chambers to take her out of the game just two minutes into the half.
Tolo continued to take charge as the visitors established a seven point lead courtesy of some errant Flames handling. With the home side unable to score for almost 3 minutes, Cheryl Chambers was eventually forced to call a timeout with the Capitals up 55-48 midway through the third quarter.
Immediately out of the timeout, Belinda Snell drained a pair of three pointers to cut the margin back to 55-54 in the space of a minute. Tolo would continue to cause havoc in the paint, taking her individual tally to 28 as the Rio Olympian put the Capitals on her back in the third period. As had been the case against the Lynx with Carley Mijovic, the Flames’ scoring had been well-rounded, but one player was doing enough to keep the opposition ahead.
Alex Wilson would tie the game on a three-pointer late in the term, but a last-second Marianna Tolo basket from point-blank range saw the Capitals take a 65-63 lead into the fourth quarter, with four players in double figures for the Flames. Conversely, Tolo poured in 30 of the Capitals’ 65 points in an exemplary effort through three quarters.
A couple of early turnovers would put the Flames behind the eight-ball early in the fourth as the Capitals converted their chances to extend their lead to 71-65. An Alex Wilson unsportsmanlike foul then sent Mikaela Ruef to the line for two shots and possession as the visitors sought to break away from the Flames.
The Flames refused to go away, though. With the teams trading baskets, the margin hovered around the 7 point mark through the middle of the final term, but former Flame Mikaela Ruef and Marianna Tolo pushed the score out to 80-69 with 4 minutes to play. A spirited Flames fightback kept the home side in the game until the final couple of minutes, but a 9 point deficit proved just too much to bridge and the Capitals ran out winners to the tune of 89-80. Marianna Tolo was the undoubted star of the night, scoring 38 points and hauling in 12 rebounds just for good measure, whilst Mikaela Ruef pulled down a massive 14 rebounds to go with her 8 points for the Capitals. The Flames were led by their own Opals star, Leilani Mitchell, who almost picked up a triple-double as she finished with 20 points, 9 assists, and 9 rebounds. Jennifer Hamson registered her second double-double in as many games, finishing with 11 points and 10 rebounds, whilst all five members of the Flames’ starting lineup finished in double figures.
Despite the loss, there was one moment to celebrate for the Flames as Under 17 World Championship winning squad member Cassidy McLean made her WNBL debut in the final minutes of the game, surely only the first of what will be many, many games for the young guard.