Pushing themselves tantalisingly close to an equal win-loss record, the Bendigo Spirit are a team that never say die.
They’ve now won six games, and they never truly appear out of most. No team has truly dominated them – the Melbourne Boomers and UC Capitals both beat them by big margins, but their return efforts showed a marked improvement.
Despite giving up a 30 point first quarter run to the Adelaide Lightning in their Round 12 meeting, the Spirit came within seven points at the final buzzer, with four points the closest margin.
This was then backed up by a win over Southside in Tasmania, with the Flyers tying scores heading into the final break.
But when the chips were down, Bendigo fought back again, to make it three wins from four matches. It outscored Southside 26-10 in the final term, winning the Glenorchy crowd over.
The momentum has just kept on rolling since then, winning the rematch fixture over the Flyers and claiming a huge scalp by beating the Boomers at home.
So just what has changed for the Spirit since they were languishing in the depths of a 2-7 record?
Bendigo on the offensive glass
Bendigo is the competition leader for offensive rebounds per game. It’s no secret that a big part of that is none other than Anneli Maley.
While it can be credited to her tenacity under the rim, part of this comes from the raw amount of shots the Spirit are missing.
It is strange to label this as a good thing, but missing those shots seems to work to their advantage. They almost feel comfortable taking shots from range knowing that Maley can pull down the board and convert the two or draw a foul.
The Spirit sit second for three point attempts, only 13 less than the Boomers with one less game played. They’re also last for three point shooting, making just 28.9 per cent of those shots.
But they’ve found themselves more than capable of switching up that style and punishing teams with strong defensive work.
Against the Boomers, Maley and Megan McKay had to battle hard against the returning Ezi Magbegor, Tiff Mitchell, and Cayla George, who combined collectively for 24 rebounds.
This time though, Maley punished the Boomers for their own poor shooting, pulling down 11 defensive boards and exposing their 34.6 field goal shooting. Notably, Melbourne only made three shots from beyond the arc from 25 attempts.Embed from Getty Images
Transition play once getting back into possession proved vital at pivotal moments in this match. In the third quarter, with the Boomers pulling ahead, Maley pounced on Magbegor’s missed three and made a run down to the court to nail the lay up.
After going ahead 46-49 later in the term, they wouldn’t drop the lead for the rest of the match.
Similarly key on the defensive end was that Bendigo made the most of its turnovers. The Boomers made 13 turnovers, with the Spirit scoring 13 points from them.
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Offensively, Bendigo has developed a killer instinct that is in stark contrast to its early season woes. The final term in the first Tassie game against Southside exemplifies this.
Taking advantage of the Flyers’ lack of height, the Spirit drew fouls by driving towards the baseline to head to the free throw line on three occasions, methodically running up their lead.
The cherry on top was the perfectly executed three point shots, in a game where they hadn’t been able to hit them otherwise. Tessa Lavey, in particular, has been adept at it.
She’s shooting at 38 per cent from long range, and is more often than not the player stepping in to hit the big three when the team needs one.
While sometimes it doesn’t come off, like shooting 0-4 in the second game against Southside, other times it helps turn the tide of the game, like her 3-5 against Melbourne for 16 points or 3-6 against Adelaide for 19.
Filling in for Leilani Mitchell
One of the big turning points in Bendigo’s season was the announcement that Leilani Mitchell would be sitting the rest of the season out, after she announced her pregnancy.
Mitchell was the Spirit’s boom recruit for 2021/22. The Opals point guard was fresh off a championship with the Flyers, the competition leader for assists per game (6.7), also scoring 11.9 points per game.
That creativity that she’s known for shone through right from the word go, with seven assists against Southside in Round 1. Averaging 1.5 steals a game, her defence was also just as important.
But she would ultimately only play three more matches in Spirit colours before the decision was finalised.
Enter Ally Wilson.
Wilson had mysteriously not been given a contract with the Adelaide Lightning for the 2021/22 season. This was in spite of a strong 2020 where she averaged 11.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists.
A guard who’s strong both ways, the 25-year-old has added a different look to the Spirit, and has been a key contributor in this run of wins. While down on her averages from last year, she came up big both against her former side and the Flyers.
She very nearly singlehandedly brought the Spirit back into the Lightning loss, with 17 points, seven rebounds, four blocks, three assists, and two steals.
The only criticism that can be placed on Wilson is her three point shot. Coach Tracy York clearly wants her shooting from range, making eight attempts from three in both those games, but only hitting five of them total.
Wilson certainly isn’t a pass first point guard, but she doesn’t need to be. Her and Lavey are more than happy to take the game on in big moments, and when it pays off, it pays off big.
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