WILLETTON Tigers coach Stephen Black feels his team has got away with some close wins this Men’s SBL because of good talent and he sees plenty of improvement left in his group despite the minor premiership still being well within reach.
With Ray Turner and Jay Bowie starring and Damien Scott, Kyle Armour, Nic Cody, Andrew Black and Hayden Noordhoek among those making strong contributions, the Tigers are on track for a top two finish currently at 16-3 to be three games clear of the third placed Joondalup City Wolves.
Now this weekend, two wins could see Willetton in prime position to finish the season in top spot if they can beat the Kalamunda Eastern Suns and Geraldton Buccaneers both on their home floor.
The Tigers did beat the Buccs in Geraldton by 12 points earlier in the season so can lock away the series split on Sunday. A win, or loss by less than 12 points, would mean the minor premiership is theirs to lose even with a month still of the regular season remaining.
While Willetton’s record of 16-3 is impressive and Black would certainly not like to trade that, he does feel the Tigers have improvement left in them and that if they hope to go further than the semi finals of last year, they will need to find that next level.
“It always used to annoy me when the teams with great records would say they aren’t playing very well, so I don’t want to do that, but I think that we are still finding that next gear,” Black said.
“I think that we have it in us and I’m hopeful that we can reach it. If we can, I think we’ll be a very dangerous team coming down the stretch but we do need to lift to improve and get better. If you look around the league, most of those other teams are and we need to match that.”
After a string of thrilling wins for the Tigers over the Perth Redbacks, Perry Lakes Hawks, Cockburn Cougars, South West Slammers and even the East Perth Eagles earlier in the season, they did trip up a couple of weeks ago losing on the road to East Perth to concede top spot to the Buccs.
Black always knew that they could keep getting out of tight situations with narrow wins only for so long before dropping a game and that’s what happened against the Eagles.
But what he was most keen to see was the response. Nine days later that was a good win over the Magic in Mandurah before then winning well against the in-form Rockingham Flames this past Saturday night in the absence of Turner.
Black is obviously happy to keep winning and feels that it’s the talent of his players that has got them out of some tight situations leaving him to look for some better overall execution from this point on.
“We certainly have got away with a few this year where we haven’t done the sort of things we need to do but have managed to hold on and win, and that finally bit us in the bum in that East Perth game,” he said.
“That was always going to be the case if we kept playing that way so it was important that we got back to the things that made us successful. We just have to keep getting better, keep improving and identifying how we can actually get to that next level.
“Good talent is probably the key to us winning those close games. Our execution has probably been the thing that’s hurt us in those games, but then great talent made plays when it mattered. Yes there’s been a large amount of luck but also the players with the ball in their hands making good plays.
“The way that we put ourselves in those situations is what was disappointing, but at the end of the day there’s going to be big games where players just have to make plays. We are very fortunate to have some very talented ones and in those situations when we don’t execute so well, we can still do that.”
Having had to play Game 3 of the semi finals last year at Joondalup and ultimately losing that to the Wolves, Black and the Tigers always knew that a top two finish was something to strive for in 2017.
That now looks more than likely to happen from here, but Black’s focus is on getting his team playing well and to their potential. If that’s happening, the wins and ladder position will take care of itself.
“Top two is certainly a goal after last year when we finished third. But at this point it’s more about if we are playing the way we want to play and do we think we are putting ourselves in the best position to be successful in the playoffs,” he said.
“Does that mean position on the ladder or position in terms of the way we play, I think that’s a fluid question. I’m not focused on the ladder but at the same time winning games is a reasonable indicator of how you are going and we’ve got some pretty good teams coming up.
“We’ll wait and see how we go and evaluate how we are going. If we play well in those games and lose, it’s not the end of the world but I think that us playing well makes us tough to beat.”
Black is also enjoy his unique situation of having a girlfriend who just happens to be coaching the second placed team in the Women’s SBL right now, Deanna Smith at the Perry Lakes Hawks.
While Black’s Tigers battle for top spot this Sunday with the Buccs, so will ‘Doccy’s’ Hawks fight for that place in the Women’s SBL up against the Mandurah Magic on Saturday night.
But whether or not he wins on any given weekend and she doesn’t, or one of them finishes first and the other second, bragging rights isn’t something they are looking for.
But being able to have an understanding and support for each other as fellow head coaches is something that is proving to have its benefits.
“Maybe I get bragging rights, but I’m smart enough to not bring that up,” Black said.
“We think very similarly which helps us bounce off each other and we get to communicate after games in a way that other people don’t.
“When you are frustrated or upset, rather than someone just consoling you, you have someone who can provide some insight and give you constructive things to improve what you are doing. I’m really grateful for that and hopefully I provided that for her after that first loss, but I feel lucky in a lot of ways.”
Photo by June Halliday