IT had all the hallmarks of a terrible night for the Rockingham Flames on Saturday. The Women’s SBL team had just been thumped unexpectedly and the No. 8 seeded Men were about to tackle the regular season champion title favourite Geraldton Buccaneers with expectations low from the outside.
It had been a 2018 season for the Flames that promised little but for a lot of the campaign it was one of frustration for all involved, especially coach Brad Samuelson.
As terrific the presence was of having almost 400 games of NBL experience signed in the form of Greg Hire and Kevin White, the reality was they were away from the group more than they were with them for various reasons.
That’s not to diminish their impact when with the group, it’s just reality, and then it was just a constant season of missed opportunities.
Just when Samuelson felt they were playing well, something would go wrong whether it be the season-ending injury to import Josh Ritchart or the constant and frustrating lapses during games which he felt cost them finishing any higher than eighth position, and could have indeed cost them a playoff spot altogether.
So having limped into the playoffs in eighth spot and losing their last two regular season games, little was expected of their playoff campaign.
The belief might have been still there from inside the Rockingham camp but the task was significant against the experienced, deep, hugely talented and desperate Geraldton Buccaneers who are looking to make up for years of near misses in 2018.
The pressure then mounted with Rockingham’s Women stunned with a 24-point loss on their home floor to Mandurah leaving the Men needing to pick up the can to avoid a horror night for the locals.
It was a good enough start that Samuelson saw his team make, but then there was one of those trademark lapses during the second quarter that saw them being 40-34 at half-time.
But what Rockingham came out and delivered in the second half, at both ends of the floor, was likely their best basketball of the season to outscore the Buccs 55 points to 36 and win 89-76 to take a one-nil series lead as it heads to Geraldton this weekend.
After what they did last Saturday night, it’s not a challenge that Samuelson feels is now beyond this Flames group.
“It’s a huge ask to go up to Geraldton to get the job done and it won’t be easy by any means, but if it does happen we’ll have our tail wagging big time,” Samuelson said.
“We’ll believe that we can beat anyone in the competition and we do know in our given 10 minutes here and our given 10 minutes there, that we can absolutely hurt teams. If we can get the job done in Geraldton, then watch out semi-final time. We’ll be ready to go.”
Even during the warm ups and with the Buccs missing captain and starting centre Mat Wundenberg, Samuelson couldn’t help but feel the size and weight differential could be pivotal in the contest.
Something he’s been big on over the past 18 months and will continue to drive is the need for his young players to put on muscle, but he was happy to see on Saturday night that heart won out over muscle on this occasion.
“I was watching the warm ups and the physicality and size of the Buccs, even without their captain, compared to our young guys was pretty noticeable,” he said.
“There’s a lot of heart and courage in our young blokes and a lot of them have competed in finals in the WABL and state comps, nationals and so on so they understand the game. Most importantly their heart and want for each other is really big and that really showed out there.
“Our young players from Rockingham have matured but we’re still not there physically. That’s up to the individuals now because we don’t have the time to get them into weight conditioning work, they need to do that by themselves.
“If the team and individuals can grow over the next six months and put on a bit of body weight and work on their fundamental skills, I think Rockingham has what it takes to be a major force over the next five years. That would be great for the club and the players within the group.”
Going straight up talent for talent in a high-tempo game was never going to be a winning formula for the Flames given the Buccaneers possess so many weapons including Earnest Ross, Colter Lasher, Gokul Natesan, Marcus Alipate, Aaron Ralph and Liam Hunt.
But Rockingham backed its defence and as long as they could find a way to score enough points, Samuelson thought they could go well.
“You see a lot of teams around the league regularly scoring around the 100 points a game but we always tend to score around the 80 or 90-point mark and when we’ve won games we’ve kept teams to 70 or 80 points,” Samuelson said.
“We had to go out there with that same intent which was to restrict this team to the best score that we could and keep plugging away, and tick over the scoreboard the best we could ourselves.
“I think we did a really good job with that and to hold them to 76 points was very impressive. The mix up of our defensive strategies was excellent, we were all over the court with different ideas every couple of minutes and that seemed to upset their offensive flow.”
In order for Rockingham to post a winning score, they did need a breakout game from someone and Justin Beard was that man. He ended the night with 29 points on the back of 12/18 shooting from the field and 7/9 from downtown.
Samuelson was glad the 22-year-old rediscovered some of his form from earlier in the season just when it mattered most.
“Mid-season Justin was going fantastic and was putting up big numbers with his tail wagging. But he lost his way a little bit over the past six weeks and I thought it was looking the same in this first game, but then all of a sudden it clicked again and the ball started going in the hoop,” he said.
“He also had a lot of great defensive stops and the way he approached his defence was just as impressive. Along with Lukey Travers, they both had a big input for us in that win and hopefully they can keep it going.”
Rockingham possessing an NBL vice-captain, 209-game veteran three-time championship winner in Hire, and a reigning NBL captain and 185-game veteran White is a rare treat on the same team.
Samuelson wanted leadership coming into 2018 after feeling they sorely missed that in 2017, and he could have barely asked for two greater candidates in the country.
While it hasn’t always been ideal with Hire unavailable due to other commitments during the week and White back in Wollongong and flying in to play, the benefits have far outweighed that for the young and developing Flames line-up.
“They are fine young men, I still call them young, and Greg Hire has been amazing for us this year in many different ways. Unfortunately because of his personal commitments with his charity and family, it’s been very hard to have Greg commit all the time here at the club,” Samuelson said.
“But his leadership qualities on the court and the effort he puts in is fantastic for our team. Everyone follows that and gets a good kick out of it. Kevin White since joining up steps up to make a few comments and so he should with his credentials.
“He is a very experienced player and his stability and leadership has been fantastic. They both made sure we were all on the same page in this game and we were in a really good place as a team.”
Reflecting on the season as a whole and it was one of great frustration for Samuelson for the most part, but now to be one win away from the semi finals having drawn to play the minor premiers is a better position than he thought they could have been in through the second half of the year.
“From a coaching perspective, it was really quite disappointing we finished eighth this year. We had opportunities but lost our way on a number of occasions and it was always for three or five-minute lapses,” Samuelson said.
“We probably lost six games this year purely through those lapses and at the end of the day that’s not acceptable. We’ve tried to put that forward to the boys without being too harsh and digging them into a hole.
“But all the talk this week was it didn’t matter what position we entered the playoffs, what mattered was we made it. For us to play Geraldton, Joondalup, Perry Lakes or whoever, it really didn’t matter.
“I think everyone starts at zero in the playoffs and that’s what we told the boys. We wanted them to enjoy being in the finals because last year we were very disappointed to miss the boat. This year we’ve got the opportunity and it just didn’t matter where we finished.”