HERE'S two words why the Bendigo Spirit are a better team this season - Elyse Penaluna.
After a frustrating 18 months of rehabilitation from knee injuries, the former Opals centre produced one of the best individual games of the WNBL season on Sunday to guide the Spirit to a commanding 77-54 win over the Sydney Uni Flames.
Penaluna, who had been slowly building her form and confidence in the first half of the season, tormented the Flames, scoring 25 points on 9-11 shooting to go with 12 rebounds, two assists and two blocks.
"It's taken her a while to get to the level that we wanted her to be at,'' Spirit coach Bernie Harrower said of Penaluna.
"We've been trying to get her to be more assertive and more powerful and when she does that she's one of the premier players in the country.
"She was sensational. They (Sydney) had no answer to her. It was a pretty complete performance.
"If we can get her playing at that level through to the finals she could be a real x-factor for us."
It was the reigning WNBL champions 12th straight victory and further evidence as to why they're regarded hot favourites to earn back-to-back titles.
The Spirit (12-1) raced to a 31-15 lead early in the second term before the Flames, who were coming off a 100-85 loss to Dandenong on Saturday night, lifted their intensity.
The visitors cut the deficit to nine at the main break and, when Alicia Poto and Katie-Rae Ebzery combined to score the first five points of the third term, the Spirit's advantage was just four points.
Enter Penaluna. She scored eight points and had three rebounds in a 10-2 run for the Spirit as they regained control of the game.
The Flames kept fighting and they did well to be only 11 points down at three quarter time.
Any hopes the Flames had of mounting a comeback were quickly extinguished in the opening plays of the final quarter.
This time it was Sara Blicavs who made an impact off the bench for the Spirit.
The athletic forward produced a three-point play on the first possession of the term, then came up with a steal and a big defensive rebound to spark a 7-0 run for the Spirit.
The blowout margin allowed Bernie Harrower to rest star duo Kristi Harrower and Kelsey Griffin ahead of this Friday's top of the table clash with Dandenong (10-3) in Bendigo.
Gabe Richards finished with 14 points and five boards for the Spirit, while Maddie Garrick had her best game of the season. The athletic guard was 5-5 from the field in scoring 12 points.
Guards Kristi Harrower (two points, 1-6) and Kelly Wilson (seven points, 2-5) were quiet on the scoring front, but they did combine for 17 assists.
For Sydney, Lauren King scored all of her 11 points in the first half, while Ebzery scored all of her 11 points in the second half. Rohanee Cox and Poto added 10 points each.