Basketball tragic and Flames insider, Lachy France, reveals how Brydens Sydney Uni Flames, after an interval Of sixteen years, swept the field to be crowned WNBL 2016/17 champions.
Redemption was the goal of Brydens Sydney Uni Flames for the 2016/17 Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL) Season after their previous year had been rocked by injury just as the team was set to make a run at the title. The Flames sat atop the WNBL standings coming into the final stretch before injuries to key players stopped their 2015/16 championship bid in its tracks, with the team eventually missing the finals altogether.
Before redemption came the rebuild. With incumbent coach Shannon Seebohm leaving the club and captain Katie-Rae Ebzery departing to play in Russia following her Olympic campaign, there were big holes to be filled, and in short order.
In what proved to be a masterstroke, the club was able to secure former Bulleen Boomers and Australian Under 19s coach Cheryl Chambers to lead the team from the sidelines, and slowly yet surely the player signings came rolling in as General Manager Karen Dalton set about building a team that could go all the way. With just four players returning from the previous season, there was plenty of opportunity to mould a side with championship credentials, however the right players, locally and internationally, needed to be available and burning to come on board.
Returning players Tahlia Tupaea, Carly Boag, Hayley Moffatt, and Alex Wilson all contributed significantly in the previous season, but it takes more than four players to fill a basketball roster. Adding Opals legend and former Flames star Belinda Snell was a coup in itself, whilst the addition of American imports Asia Taylor and Jennifer Hamson proved to be a stroke of genius as both players evolved into bona-fide stars of the League. Triple Olympic medallist Snell, 2004, 2008 and 2012, was honoured with the captaincy.
The team’s final major signing would prove to be the consummate piece of the puzzle. With Tahlia Tupaea and new signing Lauren Nicholson both set to miss the start of the season with injury, the Flames were able to lure current Australian Olympic representative Leilani Mitchell back to the club to fill the void at the point guard spot. The American-born point guard had spent the 2014/15 season with the Flames, but left to join Adelaide for the 2015/16 campaign. Mitchell’s signing would prove to be a massive boon for the club, which transitioned from a roster lacking in healthy point guards to starting the best one in the league with a stroke of a pen.
As with any team that brings in a number of new players, there is a period of adjustment and gelling, and the Flames were no exception. Dropping their first two games at home in nail biters against Perth and Canberra, the Flames faced a double-header against 2015/16 grand finalists Townsville and Bendigo, staring at an inconceivable 0-4 start to their campaign, in a season heavy with the expectation of success. The side had unfortunately added another player to an ever-growing injury list – starting small forward and fan favourite, Hayley Moffatt, who had gone down with a season-ending knee injury in the loss to Perth.
The Flames instead chose to stare down their opponents, knocking off Bendigo on their home court before returning home to Brydens Stadium to edge out Townsville in a one-point thriller to immediately right the ship. Rather than succumb to the injury curse that had threatened to derail their season, the Flames instead showed an impressive resolve to put together a solid first half of the season.
On a week between Christmas and New Year that saw many teams in the League enjoy a prolonged rest, the Flames were instead dealt the doomsday double playing away to both Adelaide and Perth. Coming at a pivotal time in the season, the Flames desperately needed to pick up at least one win to avoid putting themselves behind the eight-ball in the fight for playoff basketball.
The team started well enough by picking up a win over Adelaide, cruising to an 89-72 victory on the Thursday night. 24 hours later, the Flames came up against a high-flying Perth Lynx side. With seemingly no after-effects from the travel and the previous night’s game, the Flames dominated for 40 minutes in a 93-69 win that would set the team up for the second half of the season.
With everything seemingly on the up and up the team stumbled in a tight loss to Canberra at home in their first game of the New Year, but it proved to be a mere blip. Strengthened mentally by their ability to put together a solid record despite a number of injuries, and a roster bolstered by the return of Tahlia Tupaea, the stage was set for a second half to the season that would transcend the wildest expectations of all and sundry.
A return to Adelaide saw the Flames saved by some Leilani Mitchell heroics against the bottom-placed Lightning in a 74-77 win, before an equally close 68-71 win in Bendigo the next day put the Flames right back amongst the top teams. However, the team’s real turning point may have come on the Australia Day weekend. Pulling out a thrilling 75-77 in Canberra on Thursday, the side then travelled to Townsville. In the teams’ three previous meetings throughout the season, the biggest margin had been the Flames’ six point win at Brydens Stadium in November. On this occasion, the Flames pulled out a thrilling one point win to secure six wins from six games across their three doubleheaders between Christmas and the end of January, an outstanding record for such a tough stretch of basketball. February brought three more wins, with the Flames securing the minor premiership in a comeback win over Dandenong.
Despite finishing the regular season three wins clear at the top of the standings, the Flames would come up against the danger team amongst the finalists in the shape of the in-form defending champion Townsville Fire. Despite losing their last regular season game, the Fire were in solid form and looking for an historic third title in a row after defeating Bendigo in the previous two grand finals.
In a telling sign of what was about to unfold in the finals series Chambers was named WNBL Coach of the Year, while Mitchell and Taylor were selected in the WNBL All-Star Five.
The Flames entered the matchup as deserved favourites being minor premiers and any notion of a potential upset by Townsville was monumentally crushed by the Flames in Game 1 of the semi-final series. Brydens Sydney Uni Flames torched Townsville for 40 minutes, setting a number of WNBL playoff records in a 111-69 demolition of the defending champions. The Flames confidence seemingly moved from sky high to beyond measurable after that win. The manner and enormity of the victory was akin to a tectonic shift in momentum, to the extent that any thought of stopping the Flames now seemed almost unthinkable. Taking the trip to Townsville in their stride, the Flames swept the Fire with a 61-76 win to move to the three-game grand final series against Dandenong.
Interestingly, the teams had played twice in Sydney and once at Dandenong during the regular season, as would occur in the grand-final series. The home team had won on each occasion, but Dandenong’s win came against a Flames side missing Asia Taylor and Tahlia Tupaea. The Rangers began Game 1 in Sydney with a scintillating performance, but the Flames were no stranger to close games and fightbacks. Winning this way was their modus operandi, and once the Rangers gave the Flames a sniff, there was only going to be one result. Trailing by six at one point in the first half, the Flames rode an impressive team performance led by Alex Wilson’s 22 points to steal the initiative in taking out Game 1, 91-82.
The Rangers were even better in the early stages of Game 2 down in Dandenong, opening up an 11 point lead in the first quarter. However, the Flames remained unperturbed, and were able to take a slender lead into halftime. Enter our inspirational skipper, Belinda Snell. Already a Flames stalwart, the captain cemented her legacy as a Flames legend with 13 third-quarter points that gave the team a 10-point lead which they would not relinquish. The Flames ran out 75-62 winners to finish the season with an astonishing 12 wins in succession and deliver the club its first title since 2001 and the first under the Brydens Sydney Uni Flames banner. Twice in the finals series the Flames didn’t need to go to Game 3, accounting for their opposition with a clean sweep of the first two match-ups.
With a pair of 15 point performances and 10 assists across the two games, Leilani Mitchell was named Grand Final MVP, but the award could have gone to a number of players, including Alex Wilson, Belinda Snell, and Asia Taylor. That in itself speaks to the value of a well-rounded team, with the Flames seeing all five regular starters’ average in double figures for scoring throughout the season.
The good news continued for the Flames even after the season ended, with the recent announcement of a new television deal for the WNBL. Fox Sports will commence coverage for the next three seasons starting in October 2017, showing at least one regular season game per week as well as all finals games.
Flames General Manager, Karen Dalton is naturally excited for what this will bring to the table for both the club and the WNBL. “This is the beginning of what promises to be an electrifying new era for Women’s Basketball in Australia and everyone at the Flames are energised to embrace the future possibilities.”
“I can tell you our players and fans alike are still walking on air at being crowned 2016/17 Champions and this broadcast deal is the news everyone has been wishing for to take our magnificent sport to another level.”
With the League back on television, the team reigning Champions and the establishment of the Sparks academy program, the future is certainly bright for Brydens Sydney Uni Flames.
Membership Information for the 2017/18 Flames season available here.