Forty minutes of focus in tomorrow’s second semi-final against Dandenong separates the Bendigo Bank Spirit from a historic WNBL grand final at Bendigo Stadium.
The stakes for the biggest game in the Spirit’s six-year history were raised yesterday when Basketball Australia gave Bendigo the green light to host the decider – if it defeats the Rangers.
For the loser, a cutthroat home preliminary final against either Adelaide or Townsville awaits.
Tomorrow’s match has been a long time coming for the Spirit, which has been on top of the ladder all season and finished with an imposing 21-3 record.
After a much-hyped build-up it’s vital the players keep level heads, says Spirit coach Bernie Harrower.
“That’s the main thing, it’s what I spoke to the girls about early in the week,” Harrower said.
“We certainly want to win and we know what’s hanging on the end of it, as much as we want to be hyped for the game we don’t want to be over-hyped because that can have an adverse effect.
“It’s really important we find the right balance between getting the girls up and not being overawed by the occasion.
“We’ve had a great season and now it’s finals time you’ve just got to play to your standard.”
Harrower will look to experienced players Kristi Harrower, Gabe Richards, Renae Camino, Kelly Wilson, Chelsea Aubry and Kelsey Griffin to lead the way for Spirit.
“One of the things that happens in finals is that your veterans come to the fore.
“They’re the ones that know the right balance between being up for the game and not being overawed,” Bernie Harrower said.
“The leadership qualities we’ve got in our group are just sensational, because we do have that veteran status and players that have been in the league a long time and played around the world. It’s not just another game, but it’s certainly something they know how to deal with.”
The Spirit has a 14-4 overall record against reigning champions Dandenong and swept the Rangers 3-0 this season.
That combined with an 11-1 record at home this season gives the Spirit confidence it can shut down the Rangers’ stars - led by Australian Opals Kathleen MacLeod and Jenna O’Hea.
“We’ve got a great record against Dandenong. It’s 14-4 since we’ve been in the league, but that all counts for nothing come finals time,” Harrower said.
“We’ve never played them in a final and it really doesn’t mean anything.
“We feel good about ourselves – not just because of that record – but because of how we’re playing.
“We’re playing in front of our home crowd and we all know that home court advantage is worth something.”
Harrower expects a more defensive match than some of the high-scoring encounters between the teams this season.
“When you come to finals it certainly does become more defensive. I think it’s going to be a great game. It’s going to be tough and everything you want a final to be,” he said.
“The people who come to watch the game, hopefully we’ll get a full house there, will see a great spectacle.”
The match tips-off at 4pm tomorrow.
Tickets are available at the Bendigo Stadium box office, online at bendigostadium.com.au or phone 5440 6214.
Round 2 at Dandenong – Dandenong 58 (MacLeod 18 points) lt Bendigo 70 (Harrower 24).
Round 4 at Bendigo Stadium – Bendigo 82 (Harrower, Perera, Richards 18) d Dandenong 80 (MacLeod 21).
Round 10 at Bendigo Stadium – Bendigo 79 (Harrower 20) d Dandenong 72 (MacLeod 18).
KRISTI HARROWER v KATHLEEN MacLEOD
The retired Australian Opals’ legend up against her heir apparent as national team point guard.
Harrower, battling an Achilles injury, is renowned for stepping-up in big matches while MacLeod was the WNBL grand final MVP last season.
The match hinges on the performances of the respective captains.
KELSEY GRIFFIN v JENNA OHEA
The Spirit’s athletic WNBA import is the perfect match-up for O’Hea – one of the stars of the competition.
O’Hea has been quiet against Bendigo this season but - like Griffin – is capable of setting a game on fire. A competitive beast who hates losing, Griffin will do whatever it takes to avoid having her colours lowered tomorrow.
GABE RICHARDS v KRISTA PHILLIPS
Spirit powerhouse Richards is in career-best form and it will be a high priority for Rangers coach Mark Wright to stop her.
Canadian Krista Phillips only returned from a hamstring strain last week and was only at 50 per cent, according to Wright. Dandenong has others who can match Richards’ height, but Phillips looms as the best option to thwart Richards’ physicality in the paint.