A WNBL finals double chance is almost assured for the league-leading Bendigo Bank Spirit after Saturday night’s convincing 84-67 victory over the Bulleen Boomers.
Even without ill centre Gabe Richards the Spirit sent Bulleen packing for the third time this season, improving its record to 14-2 before a big crowd at Bendigo Stadium.
The round 13 victory, and Adelaide’s losses at Townsville and Logan, has given Bendigo a three-game buffer – with a game in-hand – on third place.
In WNBL finals the top-two teams play off in the first week for the right to host the grand final, with the loser earning a double-chance in week two.
“With Adelaide losing both those games, I think pretty much the top-two are assured of those spots,” Spirit coach Bernie Harrower said.
“Now the pressure is on us to keep top spot and keep Dandenong in second place.”
Bendigo owed its 14th win of the season to its league-best defence – which was described as just “decent” by Bulleen coach Tom Maher last week – but also its improving offence.
The Spirit has been developing its attack in readiness for finals basketball and for the fifth-time this season Bendigo scored 80 points or more.
“That’s what we’re after, we’re trying to get our scoring up into the 80s as Dandenong do and because our defence – once again we held a team under 70 points – it’s where I want it to be,” Harrower said.
“If we can get our scoring up as well it puts us in a really good position going into play-offs.”
The Spirit shot the ball remarkably well on Saturday night – at 45 per cent from the field, 42 from beyond the arc and 90 per cent from the free-throw line.
Kelly Wilson had the hot hand with 25 points at more than 50 per cent and was the major reason why Bendigo led 42-31 at half-time.
Wilson, who sunk five three-pointers, had good support from Kelsey Griffin who added 26 – 14 in the final term – and grabbed 13 rebounds.
Veteran point guard Kristi Harrower dished out nine assists to go with her 17 points and rallied when Bulleen challenged in the third term.
The Boomers got within four points halfway through the quarter, but Harrower drained the Spirit’s next 10 points to stretch the lead to eight at the final change.
Bendigo pulled away in the last quarter, which it won 23-14 on the back of Griffin’s 14.
“We were challenged throughout the game and handled the adversity and still had a strong win in the finish,” Harrower said.
“Kelly Wilson was sensational, we certainly needed somebody to step up in Gabe’s absence and she filled the bill.
“She was on fire right from the start of the game, she was the reason why we led at half-time like we did.
“Kelsey and Kristi got hot in the second half and Kelly kept going, so to have those three players get the job done for us was sensational.”
Harrower, who twinged her troublesome Achilles early in the last quarter but played out the match, also helped keep former Spirit team-mate Tess Madgen and Opals counterpart Rachel Jarry in-check.
Madgen had a horror shooting night on her return to Bendigo Stadium, making just two from 14 from the field to finish with seven points and as many assists.
Jarry was also off her game, making just three of 13 attempts in her 11 points, with Bulleen centre Elyse Penaluna her team’s only shining light.
In her comeback from a knee injury, Penaluna benefited from Richards’ absence to score 18 points in only 17 minutes’ court time.
Richards and Harrower, with her sore Achilles, are hopeful starters for the Spirit’s double-header weekend beginning at home against Sydney Uni on Friday night before a second trip to Logan this season on Sunday.