HELPING the Lakeside Lightning win a second Women’s SBL championship would be a dream come true for point guard Tia Ucich having gone so close in 2014 and having seen the amount of success the men have had.
The Lightning had an outstanding 2017 regular season backing up last year’s return to the playoffs under new coach Craig Mansfield by ending up in third position with a 17-5 record on the back of winning their last six matches heading into the playoffs.
The first challenge in the playoffs is a quarter-final match up with last year’s minor premiers and grand finalists the Joondalup City Wolves starting Friday night with Game 1 at Lakeside Recreation Centre.
Ucich was only a rookie back in 2014 when the Lightning did reach the grand final losing a tight contest to the Rockingham Flames and now there’s only a handful of players still at Lakeside four years on including Jess Van Schie, Ash Grant and Tiahrn Flynn.
The time since has been quite a rollercoaster ride for the Lightning starting with a one-win season in 2015 after the large majority of the grand final team of the year before moved on.
That led to the appointment of Mansfield as coach to being the rebuilding process that saw significant improvement last year making the playoffs before being eliminated by the eventual champion Willetton Tigers.
And now in 2017, the Lightning have gone back up another level again to emerge as genuine championship contenders.
The Lightning have lost just five games all season but responded to the last up loss to the Mandurah Magic by winning six straight matches entering the playoffs.
Ucich remains an important part of the Lightning team as a point guard who can run the ship, set up her high-profile teammates but also score herself when called upon.
The 24-year-old is glad that the Lightning are entering the playoffs in their best patch of form of the season and to be back as a contender again after an interesting journey since that 2014 grand final.
“Peaking at the right time is important. We had a little slump maybe seven or eight weeks ago, but we are playing at our best right now and I think that’s important for us because we don’t have a whole lot of finals experience,” Ucich said.
“Only myself, Van Schie, Ash and Tiahrn have been to the championship game I think and even then Van Schie and Ash were the only regular players, and myself and Tiahrn were rookies.
“It has been a huge, huge change and going from different coaching styles was quite significant and then to have gone from a grand final to the bottom and to make the playoffs last year, which we weren’t sure if we could but Craig instilled that belief in us from the start that it was attainable.
“And now this year to be a legitimate contender for the championship so it’s been an interesting ride. It does feel like an absolutely lifetime ago when we made that last grand final. Four years is a long time in this league.”
While the Lightning have appeared capable of contending for the Women’s SBL championship virtually all season, it was when the full squad was together with the return of Ash Grant and arrival of Sam Roscoe that Ucich really started to believe that this could be their year.
“For me it was when Sam came back and she meant that we had that legitimate big, but three games after she arrived it was just a lot of fun to play on the court together. We looked good, we felt good and you could just tell things were clicking for us,” she said.
“We definitely feel like we’ve got the pieces there at the moment. We have a lot of experience as well with Van Schie and Alex Bell which really helps especially coming off the bench because you have a lot of trust there with them when they come on.”
The dream for any point guard is to have a team full of weapons for her set up and try to get the best out of. There’s no doubt the Lightning have plenty of firepower including imports Ali Schwagmeyer and Sydnee Fipps along with bigs Roscoe and Grant.
It’s fair to say Ucich is enjoying her basketball as much as ever as a result.
“I think I had seven assists last week so it’s pretty bloody fun to play alongside players like that,” she said.
“They are big confidence boosters as well knowing you have options to go to Ali to take it inside or for Syd to knock down anything you throw her way. That’s pretty great.”
Having been through a fascinating journey over the past five years, it would mean the world if Ucich was able to be part of the ultimate success with the Lightning this year and to help the women to their second SBL championship, and first since 2006.
“The club itself means a whole lot more to me than just playing basketball. At Lakeside, we have trust and respect for each other and I have been at a fair few different sporting clubs, but this one just surpasses them all,” Ucich said.
“To bring a championship home knowing how many the boys have brought to us would just mean so much. They last won over 10 years ago and I think it’s almost forgotten that we can be that good. It would be almost refreshing to see the women be the dominant team at Lakeside.”
Not only would the women’s second title help close the gap on the Lakeside men who have four championships, but for Ucich it would also help her catch up on her own title-winning partner from 2013, Tom Parkinson.
“It would be nice to make sure Tom’s not the only with that championship too. Obviously it would have been nice if the men made the playoffs too, but now that they haven’t I’m so excited to have him sit and watch my whole games now because usually he can only watch the first half,” she said.
“We have supported each other throughout the whole time and I never leave his games early when I probably could have. It is nice to know that this is the first season where he’ll be there the whole time for me to watch this playoff series.
“It helps our relationship too because obviously Tuesday and Thursdays are out because of training and watching film, but we have that mutual understanding of knowing what each other is going through so that’s helped us along the way.”
As for taking on the Wolves in the quarter finals, the Lightning did play well against them to win twice during the regular season but Ucich knows they can’t afford to take them lightly.
“Both games we’ve played against them this year they’ve had players in and out so this will be the first time we’ve played them with a full squad which is going to be really difficult obviously,” Ucich said.
“But I think we are definitely up for the challenge and I think we are peaking at the right time.”
Photo by Sports Imagery Australia