THE Bendigo Bank Spirit’s cinderella season will go all the way to the big dance.
The Spirit defied the odds yet again in yesterday’s WNBL second semi-final, overturning a 10-point half-time deficit to defeat the Dandenong Rangers 78-71 and advance to the club’s first grand final.
Spirit will host the grand final on Sunday, March 10, against the winner of next Sunday’s preliminary final between Dandenong and Townsville.
“It feels a bit surreal at the moment. To get into a grand final after only six years in the league is a little bit surreal,’’ Spirit coach Bernie Harrower said.
“Getting there is half the job, winning it is the aim. Half the hard work is done, but we’ve still got a lot of work to go.”
AFL coaching great David Parkin has always described the third quarter of football matches as the “premiership quarter”.
The Spirit’s third term yesterday was arguably their best for the season.
The Spirit looked flat and lacked confidence as they went into the major break trailing 44-34.
Dandenong was outplaying the home side in all areas and even the most ardent Spirit fans feared the worst.
A half-time spray from Bernie Harrower sparked the Spirit into action.
Two players in particular, Kelly Wilson and Kelsey Griffin, took their game to another level.
The duo combined to score the first 15 points of the third term.
Wilson bought the crowd to life with four three-point bombs for the term as the Spirit unleashed a 19-0 run to turn the 10-point deficit into a nine-point lead with three minutes remaining in the quarter.
A stunned Dandenong side did not score for seven-and-a-half minutes. Rangers stars Jenna O’Hea and Monica Wright, who had been so damaging in the second term, were unsighted as the Spirit’s defensive intensity lifted.
Dandenong did rally late to cut the deficit to five points at three-quarter time, but by then the crowd was well and truly in the game and the Spirit could sniff victory.
“I felt that we’d been outworked in that second quarter and I spoke to the girls about that in no uncertain terms,’’ Bernie Harrower said.
“We weren’t matching fire with fire and we needed to pick up our workrate.
“We came out after half-time and to the girls credit they were sensational.
“We kept Dandenong scoreless for about seven minutes... it was a magic third quarter.”
The Spirit started the final quarter in the best way possible – a Kristi Harrower three-pointer.
When the Spirit star connected on another clutch jump shot and Wilson added her seventh three-pointer of the game, the margin ballooned to double figures.
Dandenong gallantly attempted to work its way back into the game, but the Spirit had all the answers.
The Rangers got as close as six points with two minutes remaining, but Kristi Harrower iced the game from the free throw line to seal a famous victory.
Wilson was outstanding, finishing with 21 points on 7-14 shooting from behind the three-point arc. Throw in three steals and three assists and the game MVP was an easy decision.
“Kelly is capable of games like that. She’s our X-factor,’’ Bernie Harrower said.
Griffin’s work ethic was superb. After the Rangers had dominated the boards in the first half (22-11), Griffin took it upon herself to turn the Spirit’s fortunes.
In the second-half alone she had 10 points and 10 rebounds to give her match totals of 16 points and 14 rebounds.
“Everyone jumped on Kelsey’s back in the second half and went along with her,’’ Bernie Harrower said.
“Some of those rebounds she took was just out of this world.”
Despite her ongoing Achilles trouble, Kristi Harrower played all 40 minutes.
The veteran showed her class, particularly in the final quarter.
Kristi wasn’t far away from securing a triple-double – 19 points, nine assists and six rebounds. Just as important was her defence on Kathleen MacLeod.
Kristi restricted the Dandenong star to just seven points.
“I would have liked to get Kristi out for that last minute of the third quarter, but when I have a group of five playing well and we’ve got momentum, I don’t like to change it,’’ Bernie said.
“She’s got a heart as big as Phar Lap and she plays through that pain barrier.”
O’Hea and Wright were clearly the Rangers’ best players.
O’Hea was brilliant with 23 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists, and Wright’s athleticism troubled the Spirit on her way to 18 points and eight rebounds.