The JCU Townsville Fire have re-captured top spot on the Wattle Valley WNBL ladder thanks to an imposing double-double from Cayla George.
Fresh from starring for Australia at the Rio Test Event, the Opals forward powered the Fire to an 89-80 victory over the Sydney Uni Flames after pouring in 22 points and 18 rebounds en route to the First Things First MVP.
While George’s numbers looked great on paper, it was the manner that she went about her business that was most impressive.
Six offensive boards, four assists and a steal as she spearheaded the Fire’s nine point win and made the most of Carolyn Swords’ absence in the paint.
During an ideal start for the Fire, Mia Murray (19 points) got to the rim just four seconds into the game and then converted from the line before Nat Novosel (15 points) followed suit with a pair of free throws of her own.
Suzy Batkovic (11 points) opened up a 7-3 cushion shortly after before the Flames went on a 14-6 run to snatch the lead midway through the first term.
The introduction of Darcee Garbin (eight points) and Kate Gaze (seven points) kept the scoreboard ticking over as the Fire went into the first change leading 23-20.
During the second term, the Fire set the pace and threatened to blow open the game on the verge of half time before a Hayley Moffatt (13 points) triple cut the margin to four.
Moffatt was one of six Flames in double figures for the match alongside Katie-Rae Ezbery (16 points), Tahlia Tupaea (13 points), Joslyn Tinkle (11 points), Alex Wilson (11 points) and Carly Boag (11 points), but despite the spread, it wasn’t enough to lift the visitors to an important win.
“I think we needed that win and for us we have been working really hard so it’s a good reward for the girls against a quality team,” Fire coach Chris Lucas said.
“Down the stretch in the last quarter we did a pretty good job defensively and it was really pleasing for the team.
“We dropped our heads a little bit in the fourth and played a big negatively to get down by six or seven but then we were able to fight back and that showed a bit of character as well.”
In the third term, the Fire again looked like they were going to break the game open before the Flames surged leading into three-quarter time.
An unsportsman-like foul was converted by Wilson before a quick triple, and in the blink of an eye, the visitors were somehow in front.
Garbin squared the ledger to level the scores going into the final change, but after controlling the match for most of the night, the Fire were suddenly in an arm-wrestle.
With an upset on the cards, the Flames drilled a three of out of the change via Tinkle before Tupaea followed suit, stunning the Townsville RSL crowd.
The reigning WNBL champions held their nerve, however, as George, Murray and Novosel lifted in the shadows of full time.
The latter, in particular, turned the game as she made a number of telling steals before Gaze had the house rocking with a clutch three-point bomb.
The Fire never looked back as they claimed an important series victory over the Flames, and in the process, returned to the top of the table.
The Fire now confront a tough double to Victoria next week against Melbourne and Bendigo with four of their final five games of the season on the road.
Click here to see box scores from tonight’s game between the Fire and the Flames.