17/04/2024

Townsville will be seeking to make amends for a grand final loss in 2020. (Photo: Townsville Fire)

After stumbling at the final hurdle in 2020, the Townsville Fire have made slight tweaks to their squad to make the championship push again.

The Townsville Fire stumbled at the final hurdle in 2020, losing the grand final to the Southside Flyers. This season, they’ll be out for revenge with a mostly retained, powerful squad.

Last season: 2nd (Runner-up)

Southside proved to be a mountain the Fire were unable to overcome, losing to the premiers in both the semi-final and grand final by 13 and 17 points respectively.

They’ll be seeing MVP and Opals star Leilani Mitchell in their nightmares, after she top-scored with a massive 31 points and five assists in the season decider. Two of their four regular season losses came against the Flyers, never able to make up ground on them.

Their only other losses came in a shock upset to the Perth Lynx, and to fellow finalists the UC Capitals.

The Fire struggled to put away teams last season, winning just two games by 15 points or more. They would often give teams space to pull back from margins, which they’ll look to alleviate in 2021/22.

Biggest in:

She’ll be joining the club off a shortened pre-season, but Townsville has gained a WNBA talent in Monique Billings for the 2021/22 season.

The American import joins fresh off her fourth season with the Atlanta Dream after being selected in the second round of the 2018 WNBA Draft.

Standing at 6’4″, Billings will add both an extra scoring avenue alongside 2020 second highest-scorer Lauren Nicholson and a big defensive presence to a team that is desperately asking for one.

The power forward is not only useful scoring herself, but excels in set play when she needs to play second fiddle. Whether it’s putting on screens or throwing a vital dime, she’s versatile both ways.

Billings has made 114 WNBA appearances in her career so far, starting on court 27 times at an average of 19.7 minutes per game. She’s no stranger to spending long periods out on the court, so expect her to start often for the Fire.

2021 was undoubtedly her best season yet, ranked third in the WNBA for rebounds with 2.8 per game. Her defence was some of the strongest in the world, averaging 1.2 steals and 1.0 blocks per game.

A double-double queen, Billings could be the difference the Fire need for a genuine shot at the championship.

Biggest out:

The loss of versatile guard Kate Gaze stings not just for the loss of experience, but also because of the new colours she’ll be wearing.

After winning two championships with the Fire in 2015 and 2016, Gaze has defected to the Flyers after being a part of the team that lost to them in the grand final.

While Gaze’s averages weren’t huge in the 2020 season, with 3.2 points, 2.0 assists, and 1.7 rebounds, she’s an important part of the Fire’s culture that will be missing this year.

Up and coming young gun Shyla Heal is another big loss, but Kiwi veteran Micaela Cocks and Stephanie Reid will ensure the floor is run well in her absence.

Player to watch:

After an NBL1 season packed to the brim with jaw-dropping stat lines, expect youngster Lara McSpadden to take a step up this season.

The 22-year-old played 14 games with the Rockhampton Cyclones in NBL1 North after a WNBL season which offered her little opportunity to show what she could truly do.

Spending an average of nearly 37 minutes on court per game, McSpadden averaged 20.5 points at 50.9 per cent shooting, 13.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists.

She was accordingly named NBL1 North’s Youth Player of the Year after producing a slew of show-stopping play from start to end.

McSpadden playing for the Cyclones. (Photo: NBL1/Twitter)

She shot a season-high 34 points against the Gold Coast Rollers to go with 10 rebounds and a block, while also putting up a ludicrous 18 boards and 25 points against the Cairns Dolphins.

If she can bring her deadly accurate shot and defence under the rim to WNBL level, expect big things from McSpadden this season.

More WNBL Season Previews:

WNBL 2021/22 Season Preview: University of Canberra Capitals

WNBL 2021/22 Season Preview: Melbourne Boomers

WNBL 2021/22 Season Preview: Sydney Uni Flames

Starting five

PG: Micaela Cocks

SG: Lauren Nicholson

SF: Courtney Woods

PF: Mia Murray

C: Lara McSpadden

Full squad:

Zitina Aokuso, Monique Billings, Micaela Cocks, Lara McSpadden, Mia Murray, Lauren Nicholson, Nadeen Payne, Stephanie Reid, Sug Sutton, Courtney Woods

Development: Aliza Fabbro, Carla Drennan

Fixture highlights:

Unfortunately for fans, Townsville will open its season away from home against the Adelaide Lightning on December 11. The club was supposed to continue the road trip to Perth, but will instead head home after fixture changes.

The Fire’s first home game comes against the Sydney Uni Flames in a Saturday night blockbuster at the Townsville Entertainment Centre.

They’ll travel to Melbourne for the dreaded rematch against the Southside Flyers, having to face the away crowd in the grand final rematch on December 23.

Townsville will get the opportunity to host the New Year’s Eve fixture, as the UC Capitals head up to sunny Queensland.

The Fire will finally host the reigning champions at home on March 12, another prime time Saturday night fixture which should prove to be a mouth-watering prospect for basketball fans.

What to expect:

Boasting two All-WNBL Team of the Year players in Lauren Nicholson and Best Sixth Woman Zitina Aokuso, last year’s most improved side should be aiming to make finals two years straight.

As mentioned previously, Nicholson already provides one of if not the best avenue to scores in the league, and the addition of Monique Billings should see the Fire become an even higher-scoring side.

Expect both players to regularly hit scores of 20 or more, with the sure hands and experience of Micaela Cocks and Stephanie Reid supporting them with their playmaking and elite passes.

Billings, Aokuso and Mia Murray are all players to watch both ways, giving the Fire an ability to play a tall ball style and overwhelm teams on defence and with their length.

The x-factor of the growing youngsters will provide plenty of spark off the bench, and keep the Fire fresh across the entirety of the 40 minutes.

The last word:

Townsville has all the pieces it needs to capitalise on its rapid improvement in 2020 and become one of the year’s championship threats.

Strong on attack and defence and with plenty of talent to rotate off the bench, just try and stop this team from scoring from anywhere.

The Fire have got experience, they’ve got youth, and they’ve got players that will be hungry to enact revenge on the Flyers and finally claim a win over them again early to get their season rolling.

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