The business end of the WNBL season begins for the Bendigo Bank Spirit tonight when it hosts a Bulleen Boomers team desperate to stay in the finals hunt.
Refreshed and at full-strength after the Christmas break, the Spirit (13-2) is aiming to keep its buffer on top of the ladder, with nine games to go before finals.
Bulleen (7-9) will be missing at least one Australian Opal, Emma McDonald, and possibly Elyse Penaluna, but Spirit coach Bernie Harrower is wary of a team with its backs to the wall.
“This is a huge game for us, we’re trying to hang onto top spot on the ladder and we know that they’re desperate,” Harrower said.
“They’re on a three-game losing skid and they certainly want to arrest that if they want to try and make play-offs.
“They’ll be coming in all guns blazing, so we need to weather that storm.”
Bendigo has defeated the fifth-placed Boomers in Bulleen twice this season and Harrower will be reminding his team to stick to its structure to sweep the series three-nil.
Harrower agreed with Bulleen coach Tom Maher’s comments the Spirit is only a “decent” defensive team – despite Bendigo conceding the fewest points this season – and said it’s the Spirit’s teamwork which sets it apart.
“He’s probably right in saying that, we’re not an outstanding defensive team, but we play outstanding defence,” Harrower said.
“I’ve stated all along that pound-for-pound we’re certainly not the best team in the competition. But as a team, we are the best team in the competition.
“It’s our leadership and our experience that gets us over the line at crunch time.”
The Spirit has six of its last nine games at home and Harrower hopes the club’s fans turn Bendigo Stadium into a “cauldron”.
Maher claimed Bulleen held no fears coming to Bendigo, describing it as “a nice place to play”.
“We need to make our home court a cauldron; it needs to be a place where people fear to come,” Harrower said of the run toward the finals.
“Our crowds this year have certainly been more vocal and gotten into opposition teams and gotten into referees.
“We probably haven’t had that sort of support before.”
Tonight’s game also marks the first time former two-time Spirit MVP Tess Madgen returns to Bendigo.
Madgen controversially left the Spirit after last season amid disappointment with Bendigo’s lack of team success and to chase higher honours.
“That’s in the background now and we’ve moved on from that,” Harrower said.
“We’re now comfortable with the group that we have and we’re comfortable with our style of play.
“I’ve always said it doesn’t matter how many superstars you have if they can’t play together they’re not much good to you.
“We’re in a situation now where the chemistry in our group is just sensational and it’s something I’ve been searching for in the six years we’ve been in the competition. ”
Tonight’s clash between Bendigo and Bulleen tips off at 7.30pm.