SIX weeks ago and first-year Mandurah Magic coach Craig Watts didn’t know if his team would click enough to reach a third straight Women’s SBL Grand Final, but now they are the hottest team in the league and are going to take some stopping to not reach the big night again.
Watts took over as coach at the Magic having spent time as an assistant to Randy Miegel in the team that reached the past two Grand Finals, but Mandurah got off to a slow start to 2019.
By the time they lost to the Flames in Rockingham back on June 7 in a disappointing performance, the Magic only held a 6-7 record, had already sent home one import, had another who had successive scoreless games and their season could have gone either way at that point.
But 24 hours later, the Magic turned things around remarkably to beat the defending champion Lakeside Lightning by 29 points and they have never looked back since.
They’ve since added dynamic point guard Taylor Brown to the group, but things had already turned before her arrival and now the Magic have won seven straight games.
That has seen them go from battling for a top eight berth to now sitting in fourth position and looking likely to stay there with games to finish the regular season against the Perth Redbacks and Warwick Senators.
It has been a stunning turnaround over the last seven games from the Magic. Culminating in that loss at Rockingham, they had lost four of their past six matches with their only two wins coming against the Cockburn Cougars including one pulled from the fire by Casey Mihovilovich in remarkable fashion.
But since that dominant win over Lakeside, the Magic have backed it up to beat the Slammers, Wolves, Eagles, Hawks, Flames and Tigers to now sit comfortable in the top four at 13-7 with two rounds of the regular season remaining.
While new import Taylor Brown has been outstanding over the last six games since arrival, the Magic had already turned the corner with their mix of experience with Mihovilovich, Rachel Halleen, Bree Klasztorny and Emma Klasztorny, and the emerging Rachell Pettit, Kelly Bailey and Kasey Miegel along with Carly Boag and Delany Junkermeir.
For Watts, he just felt it would also take some time for the Magic group to adjust to having a new coach and now he is delighted with how things are coming together.
“It’s just about getting back into the groove a little bit I suppose. It has been a massive change for them at the end of the day after Randy and Patty were around for five or six years,” Watts said.
“Yes, I had been part of the group on and off for a long period of time, but we’ve added a whole new mix of coaching staff in which can take a while to settle. It’s about getting confidence in me from the players and me having confidence in them too even though I know what they can do.
“It’s still going to take time to gel and the pressure has been there from making the last two Grand Finals, but at the end of the day it’s still the same core within reason and they know what’s required to get themselves to the end line.
“They will work hard away from the training sessions to do the right things, and that can start to take its toll possibly on other sides going forward. The flipside is that we are legitimately 12 deep and we have players who are missing out on court time which probably drives them more to earn court time the week after.
“One of the big positives for us is that depth which we have and knowing that if someone isn’t playing to their potential for the night, we can throw someone else in to have the opportunity and they’ll stay there if they do well.”
Looking back on that loss to Rockingham that ultimately kicked Mandurah into gear in 2019 where Maddie Allen and Darcee Garbin had their way with the Magic, Watts isn’t quite sure exactly what changed afterwards but that sure was the catalyst.
“We probably got outmuscled by Rockingham the first time we played them and all credit them, they took advantage of that,” he said.
“We just had a bit of a chat afterwards and said destiny was in our own hands at the end of the day. We know where we needed to get to and the girls have basically just knuckled down to do this ever since.
“We played a great game the next night against Lakeside when we held them to 42 points and something just clicked with us offensively too. From there, things have just grown and it is just a confidence thing like all sport. When your confidence is up, it makes a massive difference.”
The confidence the Magic took from that win over the Lightning 24 hours after to loss to Rockingham ultimately showed the entire group what they were capable of and they have just been able to continue to build on that ever since.
“What it does is it gives you belief. The belief has always been there with us but we just hadn’t been executing well enough and putting enough points on the board. The difference now is that we are holding sides to a reasonable tally and being able to score ourselves,” Watts said.
“When we went to overtime against Perry Lakes, the game finished at 58-all which is quite low-scoring, but we took control in the last five minutes and we seem to be doing that now.
“Early in the season we were having bad periods and those bad periods led to us not scoring and letting opposition sides getting on mass runs like 10, 15 or 20 to our two or three.
“The difference now is that we still have periods of not scoring but we are locking down and teams aren’t going on runs against us. That’s transformed the attitude of the group and made a massive difference I think.”
Having already flicked the switch with that 29-point win over Lakeside, the Magic then welcomed in a new import point guard Taylor Brown.
Watts wasn’t necessarily chasing a new signing, she more fell in his lap and now her impact has been remarkable not only in her numbers of 16.0 points, 4.7 assists and 3.5 rebounds a game, but with her ability to handle the ball taking pressure off Mihovilovich and the other Magic guards.
“We didn’t know what we were going to get to be totally honest. We were quite fortunate and Taylor actually contacted me and I watched a bit of her play and thought that this young lady can play,” he said.
“Things happen for a reason and we just happened to have a spot available and she contacted us, and she has allowed us to change our game style.
“Having her on the floor controlling the ball makes a massive difference but it also releases other players, like Milo, Rachel Halleen and even Delany so they can look at some better shots.
“Our young players are starting to get confidence in themselves too which is making a massive difference and the bonus of Taylor coming in is that their girls coming off the bench are starting to find their feet a bit more too.
“Everyone’s adapting to their roles and probably understanding my coaching style a little bit too.”
Mihovilovich had already delivered match-winning performances in 2019 prior to the arrival of Brown as she continues to defy having 486 games of experience under her belt and being 37 years of age.
But having the pressure released on her to be the primary ball handler has only helped her have an even greater impact in recent weeks because the opposition can’t lock down on her as much.
“It obviously opens up the door for more opportunities for Casey so that we can release her to play without the ball a bit more because Taylor can look after the ball and get it down the court for us,” Watts said.
“That makes a massive difference so when we need to get that rotation happening and the younger girls come onto the floor and are seeing that Taylor can control it, it’s given them the confidence to get the understanding of not needing to rush bringing the ball down the floor.
“Previously they’ve probably put too much pressure on themselves in the regard but they are now getting a bit better understanding that it’s achievable and they can bring the ball up themselves to give Taylor and Milo a break at times.”