THE 2017 season went as smoothly as you could hope all the way to the Women’s SBL Grand Final for the Mandurah Magic and while 2018 has been the polar opposite with a horror run of injuries and close losses, 12 months on they are back with a chance to reach another championship decider.
The Magic and Perry Lakes Hawks were the two dominant teams in the Women’s SBL in 2017 before their inevitable Grand Final meeting, which unfortunately for Mandurah saw them come up short for the fifth time in a bid to win that elusive first championship.
But that was a team tremendously coached by Randy Miegel and then the core was back again in 2018 with minimal changes with Anita Brown replacing Nici Gilday, and then new import Regina Palusna signed to add further size, depth and quality.
That meant there was every reason for expectations to be high for the Magic to be a genuine title threat again in 2018 particularly with a front court of Palusna, Carly Boag, and Emma and Bree Klasztorny then with Casey Mihovilovich and Brown stars of the back court and Rachel Pettit, Kelly Bailey, Rachel Halleen and others playing important roles.
So coming into 2018 there was every reason to expect the Magic to be where they are right now which is preparing for a semi-final battle with the Perth Redback starting with Game 1 this Friday night at Belmont Oasis, but it’s been quite the ride to get there.
Seemingly everything that could have gone wrong for Mandurah in 2018 has and it began when the prolific Boag had her season ended with a knee injury just three games in.
Then there have been injuries to Bree Klasztorny, Mihovilovich and Halleen that have proven costly and highlighting what Miegel has had to find a way to deal with all season is the fact that only Brown, Emma Klasztorny and Rachel Pettit have played every game so far.
Add in a handful of losses throughout the regular season by five points or less and rather than battling for top spot like in 2017, the Magic of 2018 were battling just to reach the playoffs.
They ended up doing so beating Cockburn and Joondalup by a combined 49 points in the final two games of the regular season to end up in sixth position at 11-11 setting up a quarter-final battle with the Rockingham Flames.
Expectations were low on what the Magic could produce, but they turned up the intensity and put the heat right on the Flames to dominate Game 1 in Rockingham to win 72-48 ahead of heading to a packed Mandurah Aquatic and Recreation Centre for Game 2.
Again it was a game dominated by the Magic until a run of bad luck for 17-year-old Jemma Gatti saw Rockingham able to take the game into overtime.
But Mandurah responded to dominate in extra time to win 71-63 and move back into the semi finals and it’s quite an achievement given everything the Magic have been through in 2018.
Miegel couldn’t be prouder of his team to fight through and to be in the semi finals when a group with lesser character would have thrown in the towel well before.
Now he sees no reason why they shouldn’t be hoping to reach the club’s sixth Grand Final to give it another crack at that first championship.
“We probably weren’t thinking that way a few weeks ago but it’s always been the goal to make the Grand Final,” Miegel said.
“We are just really excited about playing the Redbacks now and haven’t looked too far beyond that. Having been part of plenty of finals before, I know it can end pretty dramatically.
“If we get the opportunity to play in the Grand Final again it would be a great credit to us for hanging tough this year.
“The whole squad over the last couple of years have gone through a few things and the girls who haven’t hit the court as much are quite experienced through who they play against every night at training. It would be a pretty amazing achievement to be quite honest.”
Given the hurdles thrown at his team in 2018, it would have been easy for Miegel to think it was just a good achievement to reach the playoffs.
But that wasn’t what he was thinking and he always maintained the belief that if they got there, they could do some damage and it was just a matter of getting his players to believe that too.
That became a lot easier with the way they played in Game 1 against the Flames.
“It was a real dog fight there to even make the finals so that was obviously the first thing and then we started to look at head to heads and all sorts of stuff, but as far as who we’d play we didn’t think it really mattered,” he said.
“It was more about playing basketball at a good level as soon as the finals start and being at the level we wanted to be at.
“What that series did was provide the reassurance to the girls about what I kept saying to them for the majority of the year that we’re actually not that far off.
“When we were on a little bit of a losing streak and were only losing by small margins, I had to keep up their confidence and belief that they could do it.
“We’ve been getting better and better the past three or four weeks leading up to the finals and then we put it together in Game 1 against Rockingham, and did it again in Game 2. The belief that I was trying to fill them with was warranted.”
Miegel wasn’t surprised that the Magic were able to beat the Flames in Rockingham in Game 1, but to do so that emphatically to hold them to 48 points and win by 24 was beyond all expectations.
He then always knew the Flames would fire back in Game 2 and that ended up going to overtime. That provided further adversity for the Magic given they were on top all evening, but Miegel couldn’t have been prouder with how they responded.
“I was surprised to see they only scored that amount of points in Game 1. They didn’t play well and missed a lot of layups and stuff like that, but the margin was surprising and that’s why I knew that Game 2 was definitely going to be closer which it was,” Miegel said.
“When the girls walked off the floor at the end of regular time to come into the huddle and have a chat they looked really tired and spent, but also quite determined. They didn’t want to go to Game 3 and they were pretty tired.
“They just gritted their teeth and a few of the things this season we’ve learned a lot about blowing leads and having to back up from that to win close games. I think the season we had held us in good stead for what we faced in that overtime.”
By midway through the season, Miegel was beginning to wonder if there was a way out of this for the Magic in 2018 with a host of injuries including those to Boag and Mihovilovich while getting enough bodies on the floor to practice was becoming impossible.
But the group fought through those challenges and now are two games from another Grand Final berth.
“On game night I think I’ve always been quite comfortable in a way with our depth knowing I still had the personnel to be competitive, but one thing we also found hard was training,” Miegel said.
“Our numbers have been depleted from last season and we ended up losing eight of our 10 D-League players so we had a big chunk of the middle part of our squad ripped out as well.
“When we lost a couple of the other girls as well we were getting a little skinny at practice and I thought we weren’t doing the work off the court as well. When we lost two or three girls at a time who were important in the rotation is when it became tough, but to the girls’ credit we were always in every game.”
A front court featuring Boag alongside Palusna with the support of the Klasztorny sisters had the potential of making the Magic unstoppable in 2018 especially considering there was still the likes of Brown, Mihovilovich and Halleen outside of that.
It never eventuated, though, that the vision Miegel had at the start of 2018 even came to fruition though.
“When you lose a player like Carly who was the leading rebounder last year, the leader in steals and runner-up MVP and in the All-Star Five it’s a big blow,” he said.
“To put her alongside another first-class player would have been exciting and good to watch, but that might still be the situation where they can get together last year. But that didn’t happen and once Carly went down our focus changed a little bit.
“Bree has been a little banged up all year so Emma has stepped up and done a fantastic job, particularly over the last four or five weeks. It would have been good to see our full team running around all at once, though, that’s for sure.”
The difference that Mihovilovich has made since returning from her foot injury has been obvious and there’s just no sign of the influence she has of winding down.
“She is a leader of our team and she calls the shots on the court,” Miegel said.
“In the games she was away we were competitive but when it came down to those couple of crucial key plays at the end we probably lacked that bit of leadership. So to have her back it not only gives us a great player, it gives us a great leader.”
When recruiting for Gilday’s replacement in 2018, Miegel looked at what Brown had produced in the SEABL in 2017 and was impressed. He expected big things of her in 2018 but for her to have produced 23.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.1 assists a game has exceeded expectations.
“Stats-wise from her final 10 games in the SEABL with Nunawading last year were quite heavy scoring games but one thing I looked at when I recruited Anita was that obviously you need to score points, but it was about her rebounding ability as well for a guard,” he said.
“She was very good with that at college and has been good for us this year. She’s got a lot of offensive rebounds and stick backs as well, but she’s quite uncanny in the open court and is hard to stop. She’s definitely given us what I thought and maybe a little bit more.”
The injury troubles haven’t subsided for the Magic by any means and Miegel will have to wait and see if Bree Klasztorny and Rachel Halleen will be able to play a meaningful role in the semi finals.
“It’s sort of a week by week proposition with both of them. The girls aren’t training a lot and it’s more a see how they go in warm ups type situation,” Miegel said.
“We know where they’re at and it’s been interesting, but Emma has filled Bree’s position quite well thus far and Kelly Bailey has come in and done the job that Rachel usually does which is as that defensive stopper.
“She also gives us a lot of run. Although those girls have been out, I always knew we had a fair bit of depth behind those and that’s been important.”