23/04/2024

It was a tough season for the Sydney Uni Flames. (Image: @SydUniFlames/Twitter; Design: Will Cuckson)

It was a tough season for the Sydney Uni Flames with a new head coach and a young roster, as it finished on the bottom of the ladder.

The Sydney Uni Flames were a new outfit this year, packed with new talent, it was a big year of development for the club. However, the Flames struggled to get wins on the board but a strong season from a young Aussie star was their shining light.

Snapshot

Final ladder position: Eighth (four wins, 13 losses)

With the announcement of new head coach Shane Heal to the organisation, the Sydney Uni Flames had undergone a rebuild for the current season. The Flames chased young talent from Australia and the United States to build their new structure and had three of the WNBA’s top ten draft picks in their squad.

Sydney was looking to build a quick exciting team to shake up the competition but this never quite came to be. The Flames never had the chance to settle as a team as they had multiple imports come in and out throughout the season.

The majority of the changes were out of their control due to injury, but in the case of highly touted import Chelsea Dungee, it was more of a personnel issue.

Sydney had signed Dungee while she was still playing in Turkey and she ended her time in Australia in a similar fashion. The 24-year-old played just three games with the Flames before returning home to America.

The Flames were competitive when playing against the higher placed teams in the competition, but the young side struggled to close out games against the more experienced outfits, which resulted in them finishing last on the ladder.

What worked

Whilst the Flames only managed four wins for the year, they were able to push the better teams of the competition in many of their games. However, in most cases, Sydney would drop away in the last quarter of matches.

It was clear that the Flames’ aggressive style of play was modelled around a game style similar to what coach Shane Heal played under when he was playing. This style rattled opposition teams at times but Sydney’s lack of overall structure was its undoing. 

Shyla Heal who averaged the most minutes per game of the team was one of the main ball carriers for the Flames all season and slotted into the position well.

When the 20-year-old went to Serbia with the Opals, the Flames struggled to get the movement they had with her in the team. Heal was a vital piece to Sydney’s offence, averaging 15 points and four assists per game.

At times Sydney was able to pull it all together to gather some wins, which provided its young team with confidence and showed the coaching panel that its game plan did have the ability to match it with anyone in the competition.

Kalani Purcell was the standout for the team defensively, she was the league leader for steals this season, finishing with 49 steals. In 17 games, the 27-year-old averaged 2.9 steals per game.

Purcell averaged 9.4 rebounds per game, which placed her in the top 10 for rebounds, and provided the Flames with plenty of chances to transition the ball from defence to offence.

Whilst Purcell was the beacon of Sydney’s defence, she also showed the ability to drop back and be a backup scoring option on offence.

What didn’t

As much as courage and grit young players bring to the court, there is also the lack of composure that comes with their development.

In the majority of their games, the Flames lacked the structure that the top sides of the competition had, resulting in some heartbreaking losses.

It was often in the last quarter of games where the Flames struggled most, they were able to hold teams to low scores for three quarters but would drop off in the last quarter to lose narrowly.

The Sydney Uni Flames’ match against the Southside Flyers in Round 9 was a game where this issue was especially evident. The Flames outscored the Flyers in the first three quarters, however, they were unable to keep their offence ticking along and were outscored 24-6 in the final term and lost by three points in a nailbiter.

Sydney struggled to score the ball this year and had the lowest average across the competition, scoring 66 points per game. Keely Froling and Shyla Heal were the only players on the roster who averaged double-digit points per game for the season, averaging 16.3 and 15.6 points per game respectively.

The Flames will need to get some support in this area next season if they hope to challenge the top-tiered teams.

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Club’s MVP

The MVP this year was tied between young star Shyla Heal and Keely Froling.

Heal, who was pick 8 in the 2021 WNBA draft and had a disappointing stint in the United States, played only four games for the Chicago Sky before being traded and waived.

The young star took this disappointment and developed her game to become one of the WNBL’s highest scorers.

Keely Froling was the composed, experienced head the Flames needed throughout the year.

The 26-year-old provided a strong scoring option, averaging 16 points per game and backed that up with eight rebounds per game.

Shyla Heal and Keely Froling receive their MVP awards. (Image: @SydUniFlames/Twitter)

Look ahead

Having completed the first year of the team’s three year plan, Sydney will be looking to take it up another level next year.

The Flames’ plan should be to keep their core group of players and continue to develop them. The key to the current core’s on-court development will be to recruit some imports that will help bolster their lineup.

Sydney should be looking at the stability and experience that imports like Marina Mabrey and Brittany Sykes have brought to their respective teams this season, and try to recruit similarly to support its younger players.

If the Flames can get the right mix of experience to play with their younger squad, they will look to make their way up the ladder next season.

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