BENDIGO Spirit coach Bernie Harrower didn't know whether to laugh or cry after the WNBL defending champions won their 11th-straight game on Saturday.
Despite shooting the ball at a poor 30 per cent, the Spirit (11-1) defeated the third-placed Melbourne Boomers (8-4) 60-55.
Harrower was happy to get the victory against another genuine championship contender, but frustrated by the way his side dropped off in the final quarter.
He cited the Spirit's inability to land the knockout blow early in the final quarter as a worrying sign.
"It's become a trait of ours in the past two years that when we get 15 or so points up on teams, we don't go for the jugular,'' Harrower said.
"We should have put the Boomers away, we didn't, and it nearly came back to bite us."
With just under seven minutes remaining in the game the Spirit led 54-39 and looked set to record a 20-point plus victory.
However, the Boomers lifted their intensity and the Spirit took their foot off the gas.
It resulted in the Boomers unleashing a 14-2 run and with 90 seconds remaining the margin was just three points.
Spirit import Kelsey Griffin, who had been well held, made a crucial baseline jumpshot to give Bendigo a five-point buffer with 1:18 on the clock.
The Boomers responded through Rebecca Cole and the Spirit's lead was two points with 39 seconds remaining.
The Spirit needed to score on the next possession and, fittingly, it was centre Gabe Richards who stood up when it mattered most for her team.
Richards, who was outstanding all game, grabbed a crucial offensive rebound off a Griffin miss and was fouled.
She calmly sank her two free throws to give the Spirit a 60-55 lead with just 19 seconds remaining.
The Boomers failed to execute at the offensive end and the Spirit escaped with a five-point victory.
Richards, who finished with 24 points and nine rebounds, earned special praise from her coach.
"Gabe was the only player who played to her potential,'' Harrower said.
"She was sensational. She's had 24 points and could quite easily have scored 36 had she not missed a few shots from under the basket.
"Gabe has become one of the elite players in the competition. One-on-one there's not many players in the league who can guard her."
Richards was the only Spirit player to score in double figures.
Kristi Harrower and Griffin had offensive games to forget - combining for 2-18 from the field.
Kelly Wilson scored nine points to go with five rebounds and three steals, while Chelsea Aubry added seven points.
The Spirit return to the Schweppes Centre next Sunday to play the Sydney Uni Flames.