Related coverage: Gallery: Bendigo Spirit v Dandenong
THE Bendigo Bank Spirit will tip off the second half of the WNBL season in unfamiliar territory, on top of the ladder and as championship favourites, after Saturday night’s 79-72 victory over Dandenong.
Bendigo has emerged as the clear frontrunner for the title after its third victory against the reigning premiers this season lifted it a win clear in top spot, with a game in hand.
In front of the biggest and loudest home crowd of the season at Bendigo Stadium, the Spirit proved to its doubters it is the real deal.
“Nobody tipped us to win tonight, nobody tipped us to make the play-offs, we’ve proved a lot of people wrong,” Spirit coach Bernie Harrower said.
“We are on a bit of a mission. We want people to respect us in what we do here in Bendigo and the girls are certainly making people proud.
“To get a big win like that at home, the crowd was sensational, it was a big crowd and now it just gives us a little bit of breathing space at the top of the ladder.
“I take my hat off to our girls, they’re a great bunch of girls and defensively we just hung tough again and got the stops down the stretch.”
Trailing 40-44 the Spirit would have been pleased to be within touching distance at half-time after the Rangers had the better of the opening terms.
Dandenong point guard Kathleen MacLeod scored 15 points with four assists and was clearly the best player on the court, but every time the Australian Opal threatened to lead a Rangers breakaway, Bendigo responded.
Hayley Munro was involved at important times for the Spirit with her influence worth more than her six points and five rebounds suggest.
Kristi Harrower and Renae Camino kept the scoreboard ticking over with eight points and four assists each to half-time, while Gabe Richards had seven points and four rebounds.
Bendigo’s record of winning every second half this season kept fans’ nerves under control at the break, which the Spirit justified with another superb defensive shut-down.
Harrower, incensed after receiving a tech foul in the third term which had boos from the crowd ringing around Bendigo Stadium, once again led the charge, as she has so often in an illustrious career.
The 37-year-old sunk eight points for the quarter, while keeping MacLeod scoreless.
Richards also knocked down eight to have the Spirit ahead 65-58 at the final change, although Jenna O’Hea (14 points, seven rebounds, seven assists) answered with eight of her own to keep the Rangers in it.
Like the quality side it is, Dandenong challenged in the final term and was within a point with 6.30 minutes to play.
But the Spirit rose again, with the starting five of Harrower, Richards (19 points, nine rebounds), Wilson (11 points, three rebounds, three assists), Chelsea Aubry and Kelsey Griffin hitting the scoreboard.
Fittingly, as the clock expired and the Bendigo fans rose to their feet to salute a brilliant performance, Harrower (20 points, seven assists, five rebounds) held the ball at the half-way line – running the show as she had in the second half.
“That’s what separates her from the rest is that will to win and just pick her team up and carry them home,” Bernie Harrower said.
“The defensive effort on Kath in the second half (three points after half-time) was just sensational. That’s why she’s a four-time Olympian, Kath’s her heir apparent and if Kath strives to be as good as Kristi then she’s going to be a great player.”
By conquering the Rangers for the third time this season, the Spirit extended its streak to five and ended Dandenong’s seven-game winning run.
The teams are likely to clash again in the play-offs.
“I think they’re a side that we really match up well against. We feel comfortable with their game plan and we feel comfortable with our game plan against them,” he said.
“What separates us a little bit from them is our experience level of our veterans, we’re never flustered by their pressure – we’re able to handle that quite well and we’re certainly not intimidated by it.”
The Spirit travels to Queensland this Friday night to take on Townsville, before facing Logan on Sunday.