The 2020 WNBL Season was nothing short of incredible in the most challenging of years. Hayley Wildes reviews this most extraordinary of seasons for us.
It has been a year like none other and the same can be said about the 2020 WNBL season.
When the announcement came that there would be a rapid-fire six-week season with all games played in a North Queensland hub – after months of uncertainty – basketball fans across Australia rejoiced.
While international imports didn’t make the trip to Australia this season, there was no shortage of talent with big-name Aussies returning to the league, headlined by the biggest star of them all; Liz Cambage.
In typical 2020 style, the season opening game between the Adelaide Lightning and Canberra Capitals had everything, This was highlighted by a nail-biting, overtime finish which saw eventual league MVP, Steph Talbot lead her Adelaide team to victory with a dominant 31-point and 13-rebound effort.
In that game, Canberra young gun Maddi Rocci officially announced herself with a near triple-double effort of 21 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists. It would be a sign of things to come, with a plethora of young Aussie stars lighting up the league and showcasing the incredibly bright future of the Australian Opals.
Rocci, Shyla Heal (Townsville Fire), Jade Melbourne (Canberra Capitals), Anneli Maley (Sydney Uni Flames), Zitina Aokuso (Townsville Fire) and Ezi Magbegor (Melbourne Boomers) are all 22 years old or younger and went to work as they played major roles on their respective teams.
The play of Shyla Heal–who formed a deadly backcourt duo with superstar Lauren Nicholson, was one of the stories of the season. The wraps on Heal heading into the season were big, and she not only lived up to the hype, but surpassed all expectations on her way to claiming the Betty Watson Australian Youth Player of the Year with averages of 16.7 points, 5 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game.
It would be remiss to not delve deeper into the season that Nicholson also enjoyed. A player on the fringe of the likely 2021 Olympic Opals squad before this WNBL season, Nicholson has now all but punched her ticket to Tokyo as she led a young Townsville team to the Grand Final.
From the outset, the Championship was the Southside Flyers’ to lose. A team laden with Opals, the Flyers boasted superstars at every position with Bec Cole and Leilani Mitchell leading the backcourt, Sara Blicavs and Jenna O’Hea going to work on the wings and of course, Cambage dominating in the paint at every opportunity.
Though the Flyers were the Championship favourites, the challengers rose thick and fast.
The two-time defending Champions from Canberra had a tough start to the season with injuries, but their belief never wavered as Marianna Tolo and Kelsey Griffin led from the front.
The Melbourne Boomers were relentless with a superstar frontcourt of Ezi Magbegor and Cayla George and a versatile backcourt of Tess Madgen and Maddie Garrick.
The Townsville Fire were, in many regards, the feel-good story of the season, and as mentioned, it was the Nicholson and Heal Show!
The Lightning and Flames claimed some notable wins this season, with Adelaide grinding out the overtime win against Canberra in the season-opener. Sydney Uni were in a lot of games and claimed a nail-biting win over Perth late in the season, while also pushing Southside to the limit in a heartbreaking 81-77 loss.
Perth sorely missed the shooting prowess of Sami Whitcomb, who sat out the season to be with wife Kate Malpass for the birth of their first child, a beautiful son Nash who was born in mid-November. With no Whitcomb, much of the load was left to Katie Ebzery, who did her best to keep her team afloat, but it was an uphill battle going up against star-studded teams.
Despite being unable to claim a win in season 2020, the Bendigo Spirit never gave up. They came close on multiple occasions, and with a youthful roster you can rest assured they’ll be back next season looking to get some wins under their belt.
After a whirlwind regular season which saw Southside (11 wins, 2 losses) finish on top of the ladder, followed by Townsville (9-4), Canberra (9-4) and Melbourne (9-4), the Finals kicked off last week and what a treat it was!
The opening night of Finals saw the Capitals take on the Boomers in a do-or-die clash. Melbourne jumped out of the blocks early as an aggressive Ezi Magbegor (20 points and 11 rebounds) took over, but as they so often do, Canberra roared back with Brittany Smart and Maddi Rocci leading the way.
Melbourne was able to steady the ship and claimed a 10-point win, 78-68, with Tess Madgen (13 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists) doing it all.
Next up was Southside taking on Townsville, with a spot in the Grand Final up for grabs. In a high-scoring, offensive masterclass from both teams, the Flyers scored 41 points in the first quarter, but the Fire wouldn’t go away in what was one of the best WNBL games in recent memory.
Nicholson (30 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds) and Heal (30 points, 7 assists and 4 rebounds) did all they could for Townsville, but eventually Southside’s star power reigned supreme with Cambage (31 points and 18 rebounds) doing what she does best as the Flyers claimed a 106-93 win.
Townsville had another chance to book their ticket to the big dance in a preliminary final against Melbourne. In a game that went down to the wire, the Fire did enough as a potential game-tying triple from Magbegor in the final seconds missed the mark. Heal (28 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists) stole the show in the 65-62 win.
With everything on the line in a winner takes all Grand Final, the run-and-gun Fire took it right up to the experienced Flyers. The story of the first half was Cambage only playing a few minutes because of foul trouble and the Fire were able to stay well within reach, trailing by just two points at the main break.
With Cambage back on the court in the third quarter, Southside made their move to take a 10-point lead into the final term. The dominant performance from the Flyers’ backcourt of Grand Final MVP Mitchell (31 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds) and Cole (22 points, 5 steals and 3 assists) was ultimately the difference as Southside claimed the Championship with a 99-82 win.
The emotional celebrations from Southside highlighted just how much it meant to those involved; a truly incredible season played in extreme circumstances. To get the season off the ground and have it run successfully from start to finish is a credit to those who made it happen.
If this unique WNBL season taught us one thing, it’s that the present and future of Australian women’s basketball is clearly very bright!