THE South West Slammers couldn’t quite back up nearly pulling off the upset of the West Coast Classic against Lakeside on Friday up against the Perth Redbacks on Saturday, but for coach Mark Worthington it’s all about the bigger picture which he has to keep reminding himself of.
It’s hard for Worthington to not get caught up in the emotion of desperately wanting to win every game he is part of with the NBL championship winning all-time great and Australian Olympian being one of the great competitors and winners this century wherever he’s played.
It’s a significant boost for West Australian basketball to have such a calibre person back coaching with the Slammers in 2020 for the West Coast Classic, but what he has to keep reminding himself of is that he is building something that is setting the club up for the next decade.
That’s why being surround by such experienced heads and former greats themselves in James Fitch and Aaron Edwards on his coaching staff is helping ensure the focus is on developing young players for the future, and it’s hard not to get excited by how that’s looking.
That is still the case in a game like Saturday night where the Redbacks ended up beating the Slammers 93-55 having been in control from start to finish at Belmont Oasis.
But what the Slammers showed the night before at home to Lakeside was a glimpse into just how bright the future is.
Against a Lightning team as deep and experienced as any in the West Coast Classic who appears finals bound, the Slammers looked likely to grab the win up until Jack Isenbarger snatched it from them.
Saturday night was always going to be tough to back up and that proved the case with the Redbacks winning by 38 points as they continue their charge towards the finals and look forward to a fascinating match up with the Warwick Senators at Warwick Stadium on Sunday.
For Worthington, he was beaming with pride still with what he is seeing from the Slammers and it’s easy to see why when on his squad, Brody England and Mitch Keller are the senior heads for a group largely made up of teenagers playing state league basketball for the first time in 2020.
“We take out of the weekend that we showed that we can compete with the top teams. Our top level of basketball is really competitive and our job as coaches is to now narrow the gap between our best basketball and our worst basketball,” Worthington said.
“That’s what happens with a young team, it’s like a rollercoaster and as high as what last night was, we really struggled tonight to find our juice and being without a senior leader like Richo didn’t help.
“We are really putting a lot of time into these juniors to try and develop the future and while there’s a lot of positives and we have been working on small wins this year, there’s a huge part of me that still win at any cost attitude.
“I think to this point we’ve handled it all well and we’ve given a lot of our young, local kids a lot of court time that they might not have got previously. We sort of have a plan in place now that we can build upon for next year.”
The Slammers men then had every right to arrive at Belmont Oasis on Saturday night expecting a strong showing after going ever so close to pulling off what would have been a significant upset on their home floor against Lakeside the night before.
But the Redbacks were fresh and waiting for their first game of the weekend and knowing they can’t afford a slip up if they want to stay in the finals race, and to try and break into the top four.
The Slammers, though, started encouragingly and led on a couple of occasions early thanks to five quick Brody England points and then a bucket from Alastair Ishigami-Sims, and another inside from Mitch Keller.
The Redbacks answered with the next six points, though, and then the last six of the opening quarter to be up 29-19 by quarter-time.
Perth certainly never reached top gear, but still managed to stretch its lead by half-time to 15 points.
Coach CJ Jackson would have wanted more, though, against the young and understandably weary Slammers, and he got that in the third quarter with the Redbacks piling on 31 points to 14.
The Redbacks would end up scoring 11 straight points and lead by as much as 40 in the second half before settling on the 93-55 victory to improve to 6-2 on the season ahead of what could be a season-defining match with the Warwick Senators at Warwick Stadium on Sunday.
Perth did well to limit the Redbacks to shooting 2/23 from three-point land on the night while only sending them to the foul line seven times and forcing them into seven turnovers.
Marshall Nelson top-scored for the Redbacks with 18 points, nine rebounds, four steals and three assists while Caleb White finished with 17 points and three steals, and Ezra Nikora 11 points.
Derek Igbenoba added 11 points and six rebounds too for the Redbacks in just nine minutes while Tevin Jackson had 10 points, seven boards, three assists and three steals, Ethan Vlahov eight points and Kyden Edman six to go with four rebounds.
Bang Majok also had four points, Matt Giorgi three points and an assist, and Michael Riley three rebounds, three assists and a big block.
For the Slammers, Mitch Keller continues to work remarkably hard and had 19 points and 13 rebounds while Brody England had 12 points and six boards.
Then there was Alastair Ishigami-Sims who had 10 points and three steals while Leigh Rickwood-Pitt had four points and four rebounds, and Rhys Barrett four points.
Worthington knew Saturday night would be a big test but this West Coast Classic isn’t always about the scorelines.
Looking back to Friday night against Lakeside, he couldn’t have been more proud despite the potential throwing away of the chance to win late but that’s what happens in a young group.
“It was definitely our most complete performance and if people were to watch the film they would see that our defensive through four quarters was tremendous. It wasn’t just in the fourth quarter that we turned up, it was a grind down effort for four quarters,” Worthington said.
“We were really happy with the way the boys competed on the defensive and it was the immaturity at the end of the game. We knew exactly what was going to happen but we still made a fundamental mistake in the way that that we played.
“But at the end of it, if we don’t have those opportunities to be in that situation, we can’t learn and for us, that’s what it is about.
“As I learned from Nathan Burke during the week, there’s a lot of TLC which means that the pain was temporary and wasn’t going to last forever, so we had to localise it and by the time we left the locker room our heads were up and would control the controllables.
“We just tried to get our bodies right for tonight and that was a strong message for us knowing that we are going to face another juggernaut of a team full of athletes who are bigger and more experienced than us. We were just worn down over four quarters.”
This is a remarkably young and inexperienced team that Worthington has to work with and while some of that is because of the challenge of luring quality players to Bunbury, it’s also by design for the West Coast Classic to fast track the development of the exciting young talent.
And for the most part, not only has Worthington been delighted with the development, but also the output and he feels they aren’t too far away from having a significantly better record than their 1-6.
“It’s also a location thing with where we’re at in Bunbury. It’s really easy to recruit if you’re in Perth and I feel if I was coaching up here I could recruit a lot easier than getting someone down to Bunbury,” he said.
“But for this West Coast Classic in this situation and climate, I felt like instead of bring in other senior players that we had to go down this path. We knew there would be some really exciting nights like night and some tough nights like tonight or the Stirling game.
“I guess the key is to keep the spirits up with the young group and they have been a fantastic group to coach because you can see they are trying their arse off. We’re not as skilled or tall or experienced as other teams, but we are starting to show winning traits as a young group which I think will hold us in good service for years to come.”
Worthington’s natural competitiveness and will to win that made him such a superstar player whether it was for his NBL teams, in Europe or while representing his country is still there, he has to keep it in check at times right now with a bigger picture in mind at the Slammers.
“I think that’s why I surrounded myself with older assistants and they have been fantastic as far as keeping me in check because there are some times when I do get a little bit over aggressive,” Worthington said.
“That’s just my fire and about what I want to do with this group, and because I can see the potential that they have and am trying to unlock it.
“I guess we live in an age when everyone wants results now and young players want court time now, and it’s about how I can get them to work hard in three and four-minute blocks before letting their partner tag in to do the same thing.
“My competitive side definitely still wants to rip off the clothes, put on a singlet and go on the court, and whip their arse and wipe the smile off their faces. But the other side of me is that I know we are doing the right thing for the club over the long-term.”
While it was personal family reasons behind Worthington’s move back to Bunbury from Cairns in 2020 and that has led him to be coaching the Slammers, he is now fully invested in the future of the club and is excited by what lies ahead.
Ultimately now having seen all the hard work the young players are putting in, he wants to see them start to be rewarded.
“To be honest when I came back because of all the family reasons I wasn’t sure what this would present,” Worthington said.
“The really cool thing is that my dad put things into perspective the other morning at breakfast when I told me you’d much rather have a team that you can see with potential going forward than having a team that is struggling without seeing a way forward.
“It’s pretty cool when you see that we should have beaten Lakeside, we probably did everything better than Rockingham except shooting and you’d think if we played how we did against Lakeside and Perry Lakes then we should have beaten East Perth.
“So really we could be 4-3 realistically right now but this is the learning curve of a young team. I’m letting the guys know that if we play at our best, we’ll win more games than we lose and it’s about rewarding ourselves.
“We can’t keep talking about great efforts, the guys have to give themselves the reward. It’s not for myself, the coaching staff or anyone, it’s about earning the reward for the efforts they are putting in. Everyone is appreciating what they are doing, they have to reward themselves now.”
WEST COAST CLASSIC 2020 – MEN
South West Slammers 61 lost to Lakeside Lightning 62
Cockburn Cougars 74 lost to Warwick Senators 117
East Perth Eagles 58 lost to Willetton Tigers 64
Perry Lakes Hawks 106 defeated Rockingham Flames 69
Geraldton Buccaneers 85 defeated Mandurah Magic 69
Goldfields Giants 80 defeated Joondalup Wolves 71
Perth Redbacks 93 defeated South West Slammers 55
Rockingham Flames 45 lost to Willetton Tigers 110
Kalamunda Eastern Suns 77 defeated Cockburn Cougars 65
Warwick Senators v Perth Redbacks – Warwick Stadium 2.00pm