AFTER a couple of close calls, the Kalamunda Eastern Suns opened their West Coast Classic account with a gritty 85-75 home win over the Geraldton Buccaneers on Sunday with coach Mark Utley proud to see his young group develop.
Without question the most exciting aspect of the West Coast Classic that has started up in place of the cancelled SBL season due to COVID-19 is the fact that it is going to fast track the development of young players through experience they otherwise would never have got at such a level.
Both teams that closed Round 3 on Sunday afternoon at Ray Owen Sports Centre fit that bill and that’s why it was an entertaining afternoon of basketball as the two young and emerging teams fought hard for the 40 minutes.
Sure there were some veterans out there to show the way for their younger teammates like Corey Easley, Aaron Ralph, Carter Cook and returning Buccaneers championship winning captain Mat Wundenberg, but to see so many young players given significant roles is heartening to see.
Desperate for their first win of the West Coast Classic having done well to push the loaded Joondalup Wolves on Friday night and losing from an almost unlosable position back in Round 1 against East Perth, the Suns started impressively.
Carl Aylett opened with a three-point play before Corey Easley hit one from deep to give them the opening six points before Jesse Hunt got Geraldton on the board in what will be his last game for the Buccs for the West Coast Classic.
But Easley again hit from downtown, Aylett scored again and then Buccs championship winning guard Brendan Dinardo hurt his old side from three-point land to give Kalamunda the early 14-4 edge.
However, Geraldton worked back into the contest and it was just a two-point margin when Brayden Inger drained a three before the visitors went into quarter-time leading 24-21.
Aylett was the man to bring Kalamunda back on top, though, when he drained a pair of threes and he ultimately was instrumental in the Suns turning 47-46 in front of the Buccs.
It was then all the Eastern Suns in the third quarter in what proved a match-winning period as they held Geraldton to 10 points while piling on 24 themselves.
The Suns would go on to lead by as much as 17 early in the fourth quarter, but the Buccs did give it one more crack even with Wundenberg and Ralph having fouled out.
They did make an 8-0 run to provide a brief glimmer of hope, but the Suns steadied with a three-point play from Aylett to seal the eventual 85-75 win.
Utley looked back on the first two rounds with losses to East Perth, Willetton and Goldfields as learning and growing experiences for the Suns, and he was glad to see the improved showings both in Friday’s tight loss to Joondalup and in Sunday’s win over Geraldton – last year’s SBL Grand Finalists.
“Over the first two weekends we were learning new roles without having our imports there, and then this weekend I thought we did really well against the Wolves and then today with some of the guys stepping up into more aggressive roles to take on that star mantle,” Utley said.
“People forget that apart from Corey, we are all 25 years or under so we are very young and that showed in the way we started over the first couple of weeks.
“It’s the style and brand that we want to play. We knew we showed patches in the first weekend but then when it wasn’t going well, they put some scores on us.
“The guys in Kalgoorlie showed by backing up this week when they played the Flames that it was a legit loss against a team well coached by Wayne (Creek).
“Then on Friday night, it was pleasing to see and to show the guys what we have talked about can work against the Wolves. Then even in the stretch they put on us in the third quarter where we had some defensive breakdowns, they hit shots from quality players.
“It was really good what we showed and we knew today the Buccs would be tired from playing last night too when we had the night off after Friday.”
Carl Aylett finished with a scintillating afternoon for Kalamunda made up of 29 points, three rebounds and three assists on shooting 9/13 from the floor, 3/6 from three-point land and 8/10 from the foul line.
Corey Easley was a strong anchor for the Eastern Suns too with 17 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals while Ryan Blanchett finished with 16 points, six boards and three assists, and Brendan Dinardo 10 points, seven assists and six rebounds against the team he won a title with.
Utley always felt a team could be built around guys like Aylett, Blanchett and Cooper Lowe when he arrived at the Suns, but he’s impressed with the growth of more than just that trio.
“It’s no surprise that those three are doing what they are doing. When I came up here, I wanted them to be a big part of our plans but we also have some people that are forgotten in that,” Utley said.
“This last Friday night and today, the effort of Brendan Dinardo was enormous. I set him a challenge to get his shots up from five a game to 10, 11 or 12 and he was outstanding. Even Jermaine (Malie) who is coming into our team and has had a bad ankle injury, he came out and got six rebounds down the stretch.
“And people like Dyson Lowe in his first year, every single game I think he’s increased his minutes and our trust with him is growing.
“There are some guys who’ve had big minutes too like Nathan Drown and Logan Viskovich who are valuable members, and we are finally getting the depth where if someone isn’t having a great game we have other people to put in to deliver.
“Let’s not forget that Louis Timms, who is a 20-10 rebounder, is also out with a back injury at the moment so as a club our biggest plan is to bring our locals up to being championship ready.
“This gives us an opportunity to do that and the development of these guys is at the forefront of where we go. Let’s put Cooper Lowe into perspective and Mitch Kiernan and Ryan Blanchett, bigs don’t hit their peak until 28 or 29 and we give them another five years and they can become beasts inside which is really what we want to develop.”
The Buccs welcomed back Jesse Hunt for one more weekend and he did all he could to lift his team with 26 points, eight rebounds and three assists.
Brayden Inger continues his emergence with an increased role with 14 points and eight rebounds with Aaron Ralph finishing with seven points, five rebounds and five assists, Xavier Shaw nine points and six boards, and Mat Wundenberg six points, four rebounds and three assists.
His numbers might not reflect it with just the two steals standing out across the line, but for 18-year-old River Joseph to be getting the chance to run point guard in this West Coast Classic will be invaluable for his development.
The Buccs have now completed three straight road trips to start the West Coast Classic and are 1-5, and will now be without Jesse and Liam Hunt the rest of the way, but they are back home to host the Warwick Senators next Saturday night to raise their championship banner.
The Eastern Suns now look forward to hosting the Lakeside Lightning next Saturday night with Utley looking forward to the challenge for his young group.
“I just want to see them play that same brand of basketball where they tag up on defence, compete for rebounds, play hard,” Utley said.
“We got beaten on the glass the first two weeks and the Wolves only got us by one and today we won it by five. Then we go against Lakeside and they are big, and really well drilled. I imagine Dave Daniels will watch and scout us closely, but we just need to go out and have fun in the West Coast Classic.”
WEST COAST CLASSIC 2020 – MEN
Perth Redbacks 95 defeated East Perth Eagles 78
Willetton Tigers 94 lost to Perry Lakes Hawks 96
Joondalup Wolves 80 defeated Kalamunda Eastern Suns 76
Perth Redbacks 86 defeated Geraldton Buccaneers 85
Goldfields Giants 82 defeated Rockingham Flames 69
Warwick Senators 88 defeated Joondalup Wolves 76
Cockburn Cougars 85 defeated Lakeside Lightning 81
East Perth Eagles 82 defeated South West Slammers 69
Perry Lakes Hawks 89 defeated Mandurah Magic 57
Kalamunda Eastern Suns 85 defeated Geraldton Buccaneers 75