After round two of the Women’s National Basketball League season Bendigo Bank Spirit coach Bernie Harrower declared his team could win the title.
The Spirit had just defeated last year’s grand finalists – Dandenong and Bulleen – on the road following away wins over Adelaide and West Coast in the opening round.
Now, after 12 rounds and with the league taking a break over Christmas, Bendigo is on top of the table with a 13-2 record.
The Spirit is no longer just a contender – they’re championship favourites in many people’s eyes.
But can the Spirit win it?
Harrower reckons they can, and so does Mark Wright – the coach of arguably the Spirit’s biggest title rival, reigning premiers Dandenong.
“They’re definitely the favourites, I think if anyone says they’re not then they’re not telling the truth,” Wright told the Bendigo Advertiser.
“I think Bendigo are beautifully primed this year, with Kristi (Harrower) coming towards the end of her career, to snatch a memorable and tremendous championship – over our dead body of course.”
Bendigo’s roster has the makings of something special, according to Wright.
Seasoned Spirit campaigners Harrower, Gabe Richards, Chelsea Aubry and Kelly Wilson have received excellent support from a host of new faces this season.
“Sometimes the stars have to align and when I say that I probably mean the Bendigo stars – they’ve aligned beautifully,” Wright said.
“Clearly, Gabe’s at the peak of her powers and Kristi’s defying the odds and turning the clock back.
“They’ve got a veteran team with Kelly there, who’s always been a very, very good player, so that core group of Aubry, Kelly, Gabe and Kristi have been together a long time.
“That sort of bond and communication between those types of players is impossible to get unless you have a veteran team and that’s what’s happened.
“They’ve got great role players – the addition of (Renae) Camino and (US import Kelsey) Griffin (bottom right) has given them the added scoring punch and the flair that they need.
“Having Kristi control that sort of talent and that sort of stability is pretty important – it’s not just important, it’s probably the right recipe for winning a championship.”
Wright is quick not to discount Adelaide, Townsville, Bulleen and even Canberra – with Lauren Jackson yet to play this season – from title talk.
He should know it’s never over until it’s actually over.
Last season, Dandenong was battling to make finals before it won nine consecutive games to claim its first championship since 2004-05.
It’s that combination of timing and luck that Bendigo coach Harrower hopes is on the Spirit’s side.
“I made the statement back then after round two that you need a lot of luck to win the championship, you need luck with injuries, you need luck with the draw, you need luck with getting home court advantage – you’ve got to give yourself every opportunity to win home court advantage through finals,” Harrower said.
“Up until now we’ve done a very good job of that, but into the Christmas break what’s gone before won’t mean anything, it’s how you come out of that Christmas break that will determine what your destiny is.
“If we don’t come out of the Christmas break and step it up another 10 or 15 per cent we will actually get left behind.”
Barring a major disaster, the Spirit will play its first post-season since 2010-11 when it came within five points of a maiden grand final appearance in a preliminary final loss to Canberra.
It was only the Spirit’s fourth final, but WNBL finals experience, or a lack thereof, isn’t a concern for Harrower, with many of his roster playing at some of the highest levels of the game.
Aubry was a London Olympian, Griffin has played 99 games in the WNBA and Camino has played for the Australian Opals.
Richards, Wilson, Chantella Perera, Rachel Herrick and Madeleine Garrick have all played in Australian youth teams and then there’s Kristi Harrower – with more than 200 international games and four Olympic medals – running the show.
“I think as much as we mightn’t have a lot of finals experience in the team we’ve got a lot of experience in the team. I think that counts for everything when you get to finals,” Bernie Harrower said.
“Sometimes you’ll see experienced teams struggle throughout the year, but when they get into finals and the game’s there to be won they really step it up.
“We feel if we can finish in that top-two we really believe we can give ourselves a good chance at giving it a shake, but you certainly need a lot of luck.
“When you look at the teams we’re playing against and the talent on some of those rosters, it’s certainly something to be proud of where our team’s at.
“I really think that because we’re a great team that’s our strength. Sometimes great teams win championships, not great individuals.”
Wright can attest to the Spirit being a great team after it collectively shut the Rangers down to claim the ‘W’ in all three games against Dandenong this season.
Bendigo’s grinding, defensive style couldn’t contrast more with the Rangers’ all-out attack, but it works – the Spirit has an incredible record of 14 wins and four losses over Dandenong since its inception.
Despite that, Wright says his team of big guns doesn’t fear another meeting with Bendigo.
“There’s no fear there, that would be wrong to say that. We absolutely respect what they do, they do it so well,” he said.
“I’d be being stupid if I said we don’t feel we’ve got the team to win this thing, we do. We feel that, if we play our best basketball, we can beat Bendigo.
“The honest truth is they’ve been able to control the tempo more or less in those games and taken advantage away from us.
“We’re certainly not going to change, we’ve developed a style of game that suits our players and Bernie’s developed a style of game that suits his players and may the best team win.
“Bernie has stuck to his formula over the years and as much as it hasn’t reaped the rewards that they’d hoped, it’s certainly showing that this is their year. It certainly looks ominous at the moment.”