It has often been said that defending a championship is harder than winning one in the first place, but Brydens Sydney Uni Flames nevertheless gave it a red-hot crack in 2017/18 as the team attempted to bring a second consecutive championship to the Harbour City, writes Lachy France.

After going under the radar prior to 2016-17’s title-winning campaign, the Flames were certainly the hunted going into2017-18. Add to that the improved rosters of Melbourne and Adelaide, as well as the already strong Townsville and Perth teams, and securing another title was always destined to be tougher than winning one in the first place.

Fortunately, Coach Cheryl Chambers was able to retain the majority of her title-winning squad. While All Star point guard Leilani Mitchell made the move to Turkey and Lauren Nicholson headed to Adelaide, the remainder of the squad, including imports Asia Taylor and Jennifer Hamson, returned to the team. Furthermore, the team was able to lure back fan favourite Katie-Rae Ebzery after her season in Russia, bolstering the backcourt markedly. However, news would come shortly before the commencement of the season that WNBA draftee Tahlia Tupaea would miss the majority of the season through injury, throwing a spanner in the works even before the first game.

The Flames were unperturbed, though. Although they dropped their first game, 91-80 to Adelaide, the defending champions then reeled off four consecutive wins, including on the road at Perth and Townsville, to enjoy a solid first month of the season. A nail-biting loss away to Dandenong snapped that streak, but the team quickly rebounded to win three consecutive games and by mid-November the Flames were in a strong position heading into the second half of the shortened season.

No season is without its peaks and troughs, and the Flames certainly hit a trough midway through the season. Losses to Perth and Melbourne stung, but a victory over the Boomers in the return fixture shortly after seemed to have the Flames back on track with an outstanding offensive performance that garnered a 101-89 win as Asia Taylor, Alex Wilson, and Belinda Snell all dropped in excess of 20 points. But a pair of home losses to Adelaide and Townsville, each by three points, saw the Flames slip back into the fight for finals spots after they had been entrenched in the top 4 for much of the season.

Despite stumbling through the middle part of the season, the Flames once again proved that they are strong finishers. After last season’s 8 game winning streak to complete the regular season, the Flames won four of their final five games, including a 90-57 demolition of the Bendigo Spirit, leading up to the final weekend of the season which featured a potentially pivotal pair of games for the defending champions.

Coming into the final round of the season, the Flames already knew they would be playing Townsville in the semi-finals, and a win over the Fire themselves, combined with victory over Bendigo, would deliver the Flames home advantage in that semi-final series. The Flames promptly came out in red-hot touch, putting the Fire to the sword with an outstanding107-81 win in which Jennifer Hamson finished with 24 points and 9 rebounds, while Belinda Snell showcased her talents in a vintage 7 of 8 shooting night to tally 19 points and 10 assists. A win over Bendigo on New Year’s Eve followed, and the Flames had secured home advantage for the semi-finals.

Although the Flames would have the opportunity to play two home games in the semi-finals, the new format meant that the team would have to travel to Townsville for Game 1 to face a Fire side that would be acutely aware of their recent late-season struggles against the Flames and desperate to atone for both last season’s semi-final loss and the previous week’s demolition.

In front of a raucous home crowd, the game was tight in the first quarter before the Fire began to dominate against an out of touch Flames side. Shooting just 24% from the field, the Flames were challenged by a Fire side which opened up a 16 point half and never looked back on their way to a 78-49 victory. Heading back to Sydney for Game 2, the Flames knew that they would have to win two consecutive games to secure a grand final berth, and they had a secret weapon up their sleeves: Tahlia Tupaea would make her return to the team in the season’s most crucial game.

“After going under the radar prior to 2016-17’s title-winning campaign, the Flames were certainly the hunted going into2017-18.”

But the Fire were never going to let the home side have things all their own way. While the Flames maintained a lead throughout much of the first half, they couldn’t extend the margin beyond five points at any time, and eventually Townsville secured a lead late in the first half to hold a 41-37 advantage at halftime. The game remained tight deep into the contest, with the Flames regaining the lead late in the third quarter, and although the Fire regained the advantage, a late run from the Flames garnered the team a one point lead with a minute to play. Unfortunately, the Fire capitalised on some Flames errors in a frantic final minute, and although Belinda Snell had a last-second prayer from the corner, it was off target and the Fire escaped with a 68-65 win, and with it a spot in the grand final, ending the Flames’ season in the process.

Despite the semi-final loss which brought the team’s title defence to an end, there were still stories of success to come for the Flames. For the second year in succession, import Asia Taylor was named in the WNBL All-Star Five for yet another outstanding season. On top of this, both Belinda Snell and Katie-Rae Ebzery were named to an extended Opals squad for Commonwealth Games selection camps.

Although it may not have been as successful a season as the previous year for the Flames, the future remains bright for Sydney’s only WNBL team led by Cheryl Chambers as Head Coach for another two seasons.