2020 WNBL Round 3 weekend preview: Cairns hub to provide Top 4 clashes in huge round of action

THREE of the top four sides will battle it out in Cairns this weekend starting today to assert dominance on the rest of the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL) competition. The second placed Adelaide Lightning will take on the fourth placed Southside Flyers, while the Flyers will also lock horns with the third placed Townsville Fire. The Fire also take on Sydney Uni Flames who lock horns with the Lightning today, while in Townsville, it looks to be a more one-sided contest as the top-against-bottom clash between the University of Canberra (UC) Capitals and Bendigo Spirit takes place. Melbourne Boomers and Perth Lynx – who played two and three games respectively during the week – will have a well-earned break over the weekend.

Cairns hub:

Townsville Fire vs. Southside Flyers
Adelaide Lightning vs. Sydney Uni Flames
Adelaide Lightning vs. Southside Flyers
Sydney Uni Flames vs. Townsville Fire

The Cairns hub is the place to be this weekend when three genuine contenders and a team capable of causing an upset on its day will provide spectators with four tightly contested matches. The Lightning suffered their first loss of the season earlier in the round, but sit at a 3-1 record and are technically ahead of their opponents Southside Flyers based on less losses, with the Flyers holding a 5-2 record. The Lightning also take on the 2-4 Flames who need to win to keep in touch with the top four, while Townsville Fire have a massive opportunity to grab second overall spot if they can down the Flyers and Flames.

This weekend will be a litmus test for the Fire who come up against the Flyers in the first game today. Last time these teams met, the Flyers were just too strong, winning 101-89 and the class of their Opal-littered starting five (and bench) proved too much for the young Fire outfit. Shyla Heal gets better each game and is a damaging two-way guard in the competition, averaging 16.8 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.0 steals per game, teaming up well with Lauren Nicholson (19.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists). Megan McKay has a massive job in the center position against Liz Cambage, with McKay averaging 6.3 points and 7.2 rebounds compared to Cambage’s 21.4 points and 8.6 rebounds. The latter’s long reach and size allows her to average more than two blocks a game to deny opposition shooters.

The speed at which Townsville can run the floor is a way to get around the Flyers’ bigs with Zitina Aokuso (9.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals) also likely to have a crack at Cambage and fellow dominant big, Sara Blicavs (14.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.7 steals). The back court combination of Rebecca Cole (13.7 points, 4.1 assists and 2.1 rebounds) and Leilani Mitchell (9.4 points, 4.9 assists and 2.3 rebounds) up against Heal and Nicholson will be fascinating, while Jenna O’Hea (10.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.6 steals) is a real strong contributor every single game for the Flyers.

Looking at the two other teams that will face off tonight and then switch opponents tomorrow, the Lightning will be keen to create separation on the Flames with an important win. After a shocking 40-point loss to Melbourne Boomers after an eight-day break, the Lightning bounced back with a 40-point win of their own against Bendigo Spirit. Taking out the terrible defeat to Melbourne – which could come with an asterisk considering what the Lightning had to go through – one could hardly fault them this season, and honestly they could win both games, but the Flames is a must-win contest. The Flyers will be a lot tougher and the Lightning will need to be at their best, but it is possible. For the Flames, to realistically stay in the hunt for finals they need to win both games, and the Lightning one looms as the potential, though they got within three points of Townsville last match out.

The Lightning have a nice balance of players across the court, and some solid depth coming off the bench. Steph Talbot has been the most dominant player thus far, averaging a double-double of 22.3 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.5 steals and 1.5 blocks. She has been deadly from the field with 49 per cent of her attempts going in, and an 84 per cent strike rate from the charity stripe. Likewise, Chelsea Brook (8.3 points. 4.0 rebounds and 1.0 assists) has provided strength off the boards with former Flyers five, Louella Tomlinson impacting off the bench thanks to 5.5 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks. The latter pair will need to be at their best to tag-team the influence of Lauren Scherf who gets better with every passing week, putting up 12.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.5 blocks per game. Natalie Burton and Carly Boag share the minutes in the other big spot combining for 11.6 points and 7.3 rebounds.

In the back court, Lauren Mansfield and Alison Schwagmeyer have continued their Perth Lynx partnership to the eastern side of the country, both averaging more than 11 points per game, with Schwagmeyer being a key playmaker with 4.8 rebounds 3.3 assists and 2.3 steals and Mansfield not far behind leading the assists with 5.2, as well as 2.2 rebounds. The backcourt matchups will be a little different to 12 months ago, with former Bendigo talent Abigail Wehrung and ex-Sydney Uni guard Alex Wilson taking on the Lynx duo. Wilson has been a star with the Lightning, putting up 15.8 points 5.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.3 steals across the season thus far, while Wehrung has managed 12.0 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.0 assists. Marena Whittle is another inclusion to the Lightning program this year, and will face off against her ex-Perth teammates, averaging 6.5 points and 7.0 rebounds in 2020.

Townsville hub:

Bendigo Spirit vs. UC Capitals

Having been the main hub all season, Townsville just hosts the one game this weekend and it is the two teams from opposite sides of the ladder. While Bendigo will hope to cause the upset of the season, it is hard to see them breaking the six-game winning streak of the Capitals who have now beaten everybody except the Lightning thus far this season. The last time these teams played was to kick off Round 2, and the Capitals won by a comfortable 20 points, 76-56. The issue with the Spirit is the fact that they have struggled to score and restrict their opponents, averaging 65.6 points per game, whilst the Capitals – a strong defensive side – have put up 75.7 points. On the defensive end, the Capitals are far and away the best team, conceding just 66.1 points, while the Spirit have allowed a whopping 90.7 points per game.

There are plenty of reasons for their respective seasons, with the Spirit having quite a young side, and a number of inclusions, whilst the Capitals have gained more experienced talent, and have the runs on the board as a successful unit and of course, back-to-back premierships. The Capitals have also seen the emergence of a number of younger stars who have thrived off the no-import rule. Maddison Rocci has been impressive with her long-range shooting, putting up 16.1 points 3.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.6 steals as an all-round performer. Both her and Jade Melbourne (9.9 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists) in the backcourt have forced teams to be wary of them and therefore split the load amongst them and their highly capped teammates.

Co-captains Marianna Tolo (11.3 points, 5.3 rebounds) and Kelsey Griffin (11.2 points, 7.6 rebounds) have been brilliantly managed and will be raring to go at the pointy end of the season, while it is hard not to include the other bigs in Keely Froling (10.4 points, 6.0 rebounds) and Mikaela Ruef (8.1 points, 6.7 rebounds), contributing to the best rebounding side in the competition. The Spirit have had the two standout performers in Carley Ernst and Tessa Lavey who have done everything they can this season putting up 34.5 points, 11.8 rebounds and 8.8 assists between them. Ernst will have her hands full against the bigs, but will hopefully have some support from an improving Mary Goulding (7.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals), while Jennie Rintala (5.5 points, 3.8 rebounds) has been the next biggest contributor in the back court with Lavey.

It will take a special effort for the Spirit to get up, but stranger things have happened in basketball. Expect the Capitals to be just too strong though, and they are genuine title contenders for their third straight flag.

Picture: Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images

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