Graham Croker
The ACUVUE Sydney University Flames have yet another winter to sit and wonder after being knocked out of the Women’s National Basketball League in the elimination final at the State Sports Centre, Homebush, on Saturday afternoon.
Canberra Capitals ended the Flames’ season with a gripping 61-56 result, thanks to the guiding hand of Lauren Jackson, who will be the key player on the court when the Capitals meet the Bulleen Boomers at the Cage in Melbourne on Saturday for the 2009-10 WNBA title.
Having been kept quiet for the first quarter by former Olympic team-mate Natalie Porter, Jackson lived up to her “world’s best” tag as the match progressed to finish with 14 points and 18 important rebounds. The result put the Capitals in a second successive grand final with minor premiers Bulleen, who have suffered just one defeat this season – at the hands of the Flames.
The Flames were always going to do it tough on Saturday, having lost their point-scoring machine Suzi Batkovic-Brown to an ankle injury two weeks ago. Her 24-point average was missed in the Flames 72-55 loss to the Boomers in the final competition round and again on Saturday.
Both teams began nervously before Deanna Smith found her mark for the Flames. She scored 11 of her 20 points for the match in the first quarter, including a two-pointer on the buzzer to put the Flames ahead 21-15 at the first break.
Jackson’s name was finally entered on the score sheet 30 seconds into the second term. She followed that goal with a lay-up to put the Capitals within two points, 19-21, forcing Flames coach Karen Dalton to call a time-out after Sydney University pushed the ball out of bounds on what should have been an easy scoring opportunity.
The scoreline see-sawed with Smith, Ellie Manou and Natalie Porter keeping the Flames in the hunt and Natalie Hurst prominent for the Capitals. Her three-pointer on the buzzer gave the visitors a 37-34 advantage at halftime.
Capitals coach Carrie Graf handed her skipper Kellie Abrams the task of shutting down Smith in the second half and she kept the Flames’ top first-half scorer to two points in the second term. With Jackson continuing the grab rebounds, the Flames were slowly strangled.
The third quarter became physical as the combatants put their bodies on the line. Abby Bishop racked up three fouls in the term but Canberra managed to hold sway and went to the final break with a 48-42 advantage.
A Mikaela Dombkins three-pointer early in the final term brought the Flames within one point – 47-48 – but Hurst replied with a trey to keep the Capitals in control. In a tense term, baskets from Smith and Mikaela Dombkins put the Flames within three points – 54-57 – with a minute remaining.
Graf called a time-out to set up a play, but the shot hit iron. However, Jackson collected the rebound and posted a basket for a 59-54 lead. Flames coach Karen Dalton called her players to the bench with 14.4 seconds on the clock, but their final set play floundered with fouls and the Capitals held on to claim a berth in the season decider.
Jackson was the first to acknowledge the Flames’ efforts. “Sydney were awesome tonight, credit to them, Nat Porter was amazing,” Jackson said. “Natty was tough as guts, but I’m glad we won.”
And, with the Capitals having shot just 30 per cent from the field, Jackson was equally eloquent: “I shot like crap so I’m just really happy we pulled it out. Now it’s time to get back to the drawing board.
“I think going into Bulleen, they’re obviously the best team in the league and we have a lot to do to beat them. We’re going to work hard and train hard for another week and try to figure out a way to get them.”
Canberra Capitals 61 (Natalie Hurst 18, Lauren Jackson 14, Abby Bishop 11) d ACUVUE Sydney University Flames 56 (Deanna Smith 20, Mikaela Dombkins 9, Natalie Porter 9) at the State Sports Centre, Olympic Park, Homebush. Canberra Capitals to meet Bulleen Boomers in the final at the Cage, Melbourne, from 1pm, March 6. Live on ABC1 TV and WNBL Radio