JUST another game – that’s how Natalie Hurst and Kelsey Griffin are approaching Sunday’s WNBL clash between the Bendigo Spirit and Canberra.
But it would be understandable had both players immediately put a circle around the December 9 meeting in Canberra when the WNBL released its 2018-19 fixture back in August.
Sunday’s match-up presents the first time both Bendigo’s Hurst and Canberra’s Griffin will play against their former WNBL teams in which they had decorated and successful careers with.
Griffin has left an indelible mark on the Spirit through her six seasons in Bendigo that was highlighted by a pair of grand final MVPs in the championship-winning years of 2013 and 2014 under former coach Bernie Harrower.
Meanwhile, Hurst holds a unique place in the Canberra Capitals’ history.
The former captain is the only Canberra player to have been a part of all seven of the Capitals’ WNBL championship sides in 2000, 2002, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010.
Griffin was the first to make the team swap earlier this year, signing with Canberra in a massive coup for the Capitals in March.
The following month the Spirit secured the signing of veteran free agent Hurst as part of a major roster shake-up following the debacle that was a four-win wooden spoon season in 2017-18.
Hurst was the second player the Spirit lured out of Canberra during the off-season, having also earlier snared Abbey Wehrung from the Capitals.
For Griffin, who was recently named the La Trobe University 2018 Sportswoman of the Year, the Bendigo team she will be coming up against is unrecognisable to the one she joined in 2012-13 when she was signed as an American import.
None of the 2012-13 roster that beat Townsville 71-57 in the grand final – or any of Griffin’s team-mates from her first three years in Bendigo – are still playing at the Spirit.
And such has been the recent turnover, only Nadeen Payne, Maddi Wild and Kara Tessari were Bendigo team-mates of Griffin last season still playing with the Spirit.
"I have lots of fond memories of playing in Bendigo and being part of some successful teams that won two championships and another that went to a third grand final,” Griffin said this week.
“A lot of my really good friends came from those teams, so they are great memories in Bendigo and it’s a time in my career I will look back fondly on.”
For 31-year-old Griffin, Bendigo means far more to her than just basketball.
It was while playing for the Bendigo Spirit that Griffin became a naturalised Australian citizen in November of 2015, she met her now-wife Erin, and first played for the Australian Opals in July last year at the FIBA Women’s Asia Cup.
On-court, Griffin played 121 games for the Spirit and in club history ranks:
A lot of my really good friends came from those teams, so they are great memories in Bendigo and it’s a time in my career I will look back fondly onKelsey Griffin - former Bendigo Spirit star now playing with Canberra
• third for points (1915);
• second for rebounds (1071);
• fourth for assists (229);
• second for blocks (117); and
• first for steals (180).
If you were to combine Griffin’s average points (15.8), rebounds (8.9), assists (1.9), blocks (1.0) and steals (1.5) and subtract her turnovers (2.1) per game, her total of 26.9 is the highest of any of the 66 players who have played for the Spirit in their 12 seasons in the WNBL.
“The best way to approach this weekend is just like it’s any other game,” Griffin said.
“The older I have got the better I have become at being able to take the emotion out of the game, whether that be a grand final, first game back from injury or playing your old side for the first time.
“You have to take it as just another game and trust the training you have put into it, game plan and the process and go out to, hopefully, execute the best you can.
“Bendigo is a really different team to the one I played with. There’s no players left from my first three years there and only a handful from last season.
“And they are now playing in a brand new stadium, so it really is a new-look and a lot of those memories I have are left on the old court that we used to play on.”
Griffin’s last three years in Bendigo were played under coach Simon Pritchard, who remains at the Spirit helm this season.
“I haven’t tried to worry about what Simon is going to do to try to affect me; it has been more about how I can best prepare myself and my team-mates and look at what we can do well,” Griffin said.
“Otherwise it can become a bit of a guessing game and too much energy gets wasted on uncertainties.”
Given the form she is in and the way in which he has so often seen up close how dominant a force she can be, Pritchard says containing Griffin will take a mighty team defensive effort.
Griffin leads the WNBL in rebounds per game (12.3) and is second in scoring (19.4) as part of a star-studded Canberra team that is third on the ladder with a 6-4 record, but coming off a pair of defeats last weekend.
Griffin’s red-hot form comes on the back of hip surgery that ended her final year with the Spirit last season after just six games.
“She’s probably in the best form of her career at the moment, so for us it’s about limiting her possession and not allowing her to get too much of it down in the paint,” Pritchard said.
“There’s nothing we can do about her work-rate; she works incredibly hard and it will be a case of trying to put as many players as we can on her to match her hardness.
“But as far as I’m concerned, Kelsey made the best decision for herself at the time to go to Canberra and I’ve certainly got no animosity. She gave me everything when she played for the Spirit and that’s all you can ask of any player.”
Griffin isn’t the only dual Bendigo Spirit championship player on the Capitals’ roster this season.
So too is point guard Kelly Wilson, who leads the WNBL in assists per game (6.6).
However, Wilson – a veteran of more than 350 WNBL games – has plenty of experience playing against her former team having left the Spirit after 2015-16 and played the previous two years with Townsville, which included winning another championship last season.
Meanwhile, Hurst says she hasn’t yet given any thought to the looming match-up with her former side given the Spirit’s immediate focus has been on the first leg of their interstate double on Friday night in Perth against the ladder-leading Lynx.
Bendigo heads into Friday night’s game against the Lynx with a 6-6 record, but needing to regain some spark having lost its three previous games.
“To be honest, I haven’t given it any thought yet. My focus is just on the game against Perth on Friday night… the Canberra game on Sunday still seems so far away,” Hurst said earlier this week.
“So for now I’m okay about it because it hasn’t been in my mind, but I’m sure once I get to Canberra and we start preparing for the game that I’ll start to feel the kind of emotions that come with playing against a club where you spent 12 years.”
After making her debut with the club as a teenager, Hurst played 247 games for the Capitals. After three years away she returned to Canberra as captain last season, winning the club MVP and receiving the Fan Favourite award.
But the 35-year-old point guard will be anything but the fan favourite on Sunday afternoon when she steps onto the court at Canberra’s National Convention Centre at 2pm as an opposition player for the first time.
“I wear a Bendigo singlet now and that’s where my loyalty lies. As much as I have all those great memories in Canberra where I was lucky enough to win seven championships, my loyalty is with Bendigo,” Hurst said.
“As soon as I put that singlet on it is us against them, and hopefully, after the game I can shake their hands and remember some good times.”
Hurst’s return to Canberra will coincide with her receiving life membership from Basketball ACT on Sunday.
“It’s obviously a massive honour and certainly not something I expected. I loved being from Canberra and playing for the Capitals and ACT when I was growing up, so it’s fantastic to be receiving life membership.”
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