Sydney Uni take NWBL bronze in a thriller

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In an action-packed thriller, the Sydney Uni WheelKings have fought back from a 10 point half-time deficit to defeat Victoria Dandenong Rangers 55-51 in the National Wheelchair Basketball League (NWBL) Finals 3rd place playoff at Shellharbour Stadium on Sunday.

Sydney Uni started the game disastrously and they were down 17-7 at the first break with only Craig Cannane and Sydney University Elite Athlete Program (EAP) scholarship holder Sarah Stewart registering scores.

The WheelKings came out much more determined in the second quarter and kept the dangerous Del Toso to just 3 points. Uni’s scoring woes continued, but at least they had manage to slow down the Rangers scoring as well, and still trailed by just the 10 points, 29-19 at half-time.

After a big rev-up from the coaches during half-time, it was like a different Sydney Uni team that came out for the second half. Shots were falling, loose balls were being dived on, and turnovers were being forced. Del Toso scored the opening basket to put Rangers up by 12 but then the WheelKings went on a 15-6 run over the next 6 minutes to trail by just 3 with 3:19 left in the third period.

CJ Grogan hit the first 2 baskets of that run and 4 more WheelKings players added to the score as the quality of play was infectious. With Dandenong holding just a 40-37 advantage going into the last term, the game was now wide open.

In front of a huge and appreciative finals crowd, the Rangers quickly got the jump on the WheelKings to go up by 7 just one minute into the last quarter. However, a stunning performance from Cannane, Gauci, Grogan, Stewart and Josh Meoli saw them keep working their offence as they whittled the lead back to a single point with 5 minutes on the clock. Sydney’s bench lit up at the 3 minute mark when CJ Grogan hit a 2-pointer to put the WheelKings into the lead for the first time in the match. 

Neither team scored again until the 1 minute mark when Crispin made a free-throw to tie the game, 50-50. Moments later, a foul on Dandenong’s Jannik Blair put him at the line where he converted 1 of his 2 free-throws. Now down 1, the pressure was right back on the WheelKings. Step up Sarah Stewart who calmy hit an outside shot to retake the lead with 28 seconds remaining.

Dandenong took a time-out then put the ball in Crispin’s hands to try to regain the lead however she missed with her attempt. In the scramble for the rebound, the Rangers guard Dylan Alcott secured the ball but he missed his rushed shot rather than passing the ball out to set up a final play.

Cannane pulled in the rebound and was immediately fouled with 16 seconds left. The bad news for Dandenong was that they hadn’t fouled at all during the quarter so they’d have to commit 3 more very quick fouls to put the WheelKings at the line, thus giving them a chance of getting the ball back – hopefully with the WheelKings missing the free-throws.

It eventually came down to Grogan getting fouled with 9 seconds on the clock and he iced the first foul shot to give a 2 point buffer. He then missed the second but Stewart was right there to grab the most important offensive board of the game. She quickly passed the ball out to Gauci who was immediately fouled with the clock reading 5 seconds to go. 

Gauci’s free-throws were critical. Make one and Dandenong would need a 3-pointer to tie. Make 2 and it’s game over. Gauci showed all the class that has made her the starting point guard for the Australian Gliders. She calmy sunk both shots to put the game out of reach, WheelKings 55, Rangers 51.

After the game, Gauci (12 points, 9 asissts) was typically modest about her leading role in the win. “I’m pleased that I played well but it truly was a team effort. We played some of our best basketball of the season in the second half and everyone’s so happy with win.”

Coach Hewson was ecstatic with the performance of his squad. “That was a fantastic win for our team and especially the young guys. They were on the bench when we played in the grand final in 2009 but now they’ve had a leading role in winning a trophy. Credit goes to Kylie and especially Craig for their veteran leadership, and Craig has had his best season in years on the court and in the stats. Fantastic effort all round!”