The Southside Flyers joined an exclusive group of Victorian champions in 2020, taking out the WNBL Championship over the Townsville Fire 99 to 82.
Like the Richmond Tigers, Melbourne Storm and the Melbourne Vixens before them, the Flyers not only adapted to hub life in Northern Queensland, they thrived in it.
While “two months is a long time to live out of a bag,” according to Flyers coach Cheryl Chambers, she believes the tumultuous season has only brought the team closer together as a unit.
“It’s been a journey and the only way for us to succeed was to succeed together,” Chambers told media post-game.
“Today was another example of everyone being selfless and doing what we needed to do to win.”
After joining the Flyers at the start of the 2019/20 season, Chambers has three championships to her name between her playing and coaching careers.
Now a four-time WNBL All-Star, Liz Cambage echoed her coach’s sentiments.
“It’s been a long 55 days. It’s been a marathon… the biggest grind of a basketball season I’ve ever felt,” she said.
Playing matches in Cairns, Mackay and Townsville, the Flyers sat at the top of the table from the early rounds of the condensed six-week season, finishing with 11 wins and 2 losses on top of the ladder.
Only the Melbourne Boomers (4th overall) and UC Capitals (3rd) bested the Flyers earlier in the season, the champions emerging victorious in their rematches.
A grand final to remember
Despite being pulled off the court after giving away two first term fouls, Cambage epitomised the Flyers’ selfless play, helping her team to a 10-point lead coming into the last break.
Point guard Leilani Mitchell took out the Rachel Sporn award as the most valuable player on the ground, after a 21-point first half scoring blitz.
Mitchell was furthermore awarded the Finals MVP award for her stellar performances across the series, averaging 9.5 points and 5.4 assists.
Speaking post-game, Mitchell too was focused solely on team success.
“I think we have the most selfless group. Every night we went on court, and we didn’t care who scored, who got the stats,” she said.
“Tonight it just happened to be me.”
For the losing side, coach Shannon Seebohm had plenty of optimism and praise for her team post-game.
“We’re the youngest team in the competition and I think getting experience in playing games like this for some [of] our players is invaluable and [I] know they are going learn a lot from this experience,” she said.
“The season we’ve had, coming back from finishing bottom last year to making the grand final is a really big step forward for us.”
It was an even performance by the Fire, with Lauren Nicholson (20 points), Nadeen Payne (14 points), Shyla Heal (11 points) and captain Mia Murray (11 points) all contributing to the scorecard.
With her coaching tenure extended until 2024, Seebohm and the Fire will likely contend for finals again next year despite the devastating loss.
Challenges of the hub
The WNBL fixture was one of the most intense challenges of the year, with 56 games played including finals between the 11th of November and the 20th of December.
While the Fire were able to take advantage of being in their home state of Queensland, even they were subject to hub restrictions.
Life couldn’t have gotten any harder for the Bendigo Spirit, who were unable to register a single victory to finish on the bottom of the table at 0 wins and 13 losses.
This included multiple 30+ point demolitions at the hands of the Flyers, the Sydney Uni Flames, the Flyers and the Boomers.
17 year-old forward Piper Dunlop was a bright spot for the Spirit, demonstrating her maturity after a disappointing 36-point loss to the Capitals.
“We’ve got to keep our heads up, keep pushing hard, we all have a great work ethic. I’m not stressed at all about it, we’ll pull through,” she said after the game.
“In every photo there’s a smile on my face and that’s because I’m always smiling. This is an experience I’ll cherish for the rest of my life and I’m over the moon to be here.”
Dunlop went three from three to score 6 points, as well as registering an assist and a rebound in only 11 minutes on the court.