The Bendigo Bank Spirit has made a flying start to the WNBL season after two come-from-behind victories on the road in the opening round.
Bendigo beat the Adelaide Lightning 73-71 on Friday night after being six points down in the dying minutes and then overcame an 11-point half-time deficit to wipe-out the West Coast Waves 76-69 in Perth on Saturday night.
The victories – which put Bendigo a win clear on top of the ladder – showed the Spirit’s fighting qualities, coach Bernie Harrower said.
“I’m extremely proud of the girls, we dug deep and came from behind in both games to win – it’s really character-building,” Harrower said.
“The win against Adelaide was sensational from the point-of-view that we were pretty much down most of the game and got ourselves in front in the last quarter.”
Bendigo kept Adelaide scoreless in the final two-and-a-half minutes and sunk the last eight points of the game to snatch victory.
Spirit centre Gabe Richards scored the match-winning basket in a three-point play, set up by Kristi Harrower with her 10th assist of the game.
The veteran point guard also drained 20 points with eight rebounds, while Richards was outstanding with 24 points and 10 boards.
“Kristi’s performances were nothing short of sensational at her age, she’s back to her MVP form of a couple of years ago,” Harrower said.
“Gabe was just magnificent all weekend.”
Kelly Wilson was the other double-figure scorer for Bendigo with 12 points, but it was a team effort to topple the star-studded Lightning.
Adelaide is a favourite to challenge for this year’s title and boasts past and present Australian Opals Suzy Batkovic, Laura Hodges and Jo Hill.
But Richards, Chelsea Aubry and new recruits Hayley Munro and Rachel Herrick – against her old club – restricted Adelaide’s gun trio to just 42 points between them.
“Defensively against them we were good, that’s where I think the game was won. We kept them to a score we were capable of getting,” Harrower said.
Out-rebounded 41-30 by Adelaide’s tall timber, Bendigo also had less shots (105-97) but was more accurate from the free-throw line and hit six three-pointers from 18 attempts to the Lightning’s zero from 12 shots.
Heading to Perth the next day was a potential banana-skin for the Spirit against an improved West Coast outfit.
After a three-hour flight delay and with tired minds and bodies, Bendigo was slow to get going and trailed by 11 points, 43-32, at the main break.
A half-time rocket from the coach did the trick, though, as the Spirit outscored the Waves 19-7 in the third term to take a one-point lead at the last change.
“I gave them a bit of a serve about being able to play fatigued and being able to play through the pain,” Harrower said.
“It’s no good being able to beat Adelaide one game and then go out the next night and lose a game to West Coast.
“As much as West Coast are really improved it was a game we still needed to win on the road if we do want to have finals aspirations.
“We had a sensational third quarter that got us back into the game, it was neck-and-neck in the last until we broke away at the finish.”
Kristi Harrower was brilliant again with 28 points, eight assists and four rebounds, but suffered a hand injury late in the game which could put her in doubt for round two.
Richards also had another superb match with 16 points and 12 boards, while Wilson sunk 11 points, with four assists and six rebounds.
Former Spirit star Deanna Smith top-scored for the Waves with 17 points, to go with seven assists and 11 rebounds.
Bernie Harrower was pleased with the all-round team effort, especially without an import or star recruit Renae Camino, who is hopeful of returning from a calf injury for this weekend’s tough away games at Bulleen and Dandenong.
“We’ll keep our fingers crossed there. The girl can flat-out score and that’s what we need,” Harrower said.
“The form we’re in without her and our new import…it’s just going to top-off our team and really make us a serious contender.”