By Lachy France
Following a comprehensive sweep of the defending champion Townsville Fire in the semi-finals, Brydens Sydney Uni Flames move into the WNBL grand final for the first time since 2008. The minor premiers will take on the Dandenong Rangers, who were far too strong at home in Game 3 of their semi-final series against the Perth Lynx as a 91-71 win sealed their passage to the decider.
The Flames and Fire had played each other close all season, but the Flames threw the form book out the window by cruising to a pair of wins. A 38 point third quarter was the catalyst for a record-smashing 111-69 win at home in Game 1, but the Flames still had to travel to Townsville for Game 2. In front of a raucous Townsville crowd, the Flames weren’t quite at the same level as in the opener, but still cruised to a 76-61 win to take the series 2-0.
Dandenong, on the other hand, took the long way to the grand final. The Rangers withstood a late fightback from Perth in Game 1 at home to win 73-66, but Sami Whitcomb stood in their way of clinching the series in Perth. The MVP favourite dropped 41 points for a WNBL finals game record, and 30 points from Steph Cumming weren’t enough as the Lynx took Game 2 91-71. Back on their home patch for Game 3, the Rangers were outstanding in front of their own fans to cruise in the last quarter for an 81-63 win and a shot at their first championship since 2012.
The Flames won the season series against the Rangers, but regular season form is not always a true predictor of finals. Ironically, the teams have played 3 times this season, twice at Brydens Stadium, as will be the case in the grand final if the series does go to three games. The Rangers won the first matchup in Dandenong, as 20 point efforts from Belinda Snell and Alex Wilson weren’t enough against a Rangers side which shot 49% from the field in a 91-83 win.
However, the Flames were perfect on their home patch against the Rangers. Despite heading into halftime tied at 45-45, the home side rode an outstanding second-half defensive performance to an 82-67 win in the team’s last game before the Christmas break. In early February, the Rangers visited again, and a well-rounded scoring performance and a 21-11 final quarter saw the Flames steal an 81-77 win.
These games have seen outstanding performances from a variety of players on both sides, and with each team both with a full complement of players to choose from, the stage is set for an electric grand final series. The Flames will rightly go in as favourites after finishing at the top of the table, but the Rangers have every chance of taking home the title. This game may well be won in the backcourt, where the defensive prowess of Steph Cumming and Amelia Todhunter will be paramount in stopping the likes of Alex Wilson, Leilani Mitchell, and Tahlia Tupaea. If the Flames can win this battle, it will go a long way to securing not only a victory in Game 1, but potentially the series and the 2016/17 WNBL Championship.