Back in the Day: Top 10 teams in WNBL history

Back in the Day: Top 10 teams in WNBL history

In the spirit of my wise and learned colleague Matthew McQuade’s effort over on the NBL’s website, here then is an educated guess as to the ten greatest teams in the thirty-plus year history of the WNBL. Before readers begin,

In the spirit of my wise and learned colleague Matthew McQuade’s effort over on the NBL’s website, here then is an educated guess as to the ten greatest teams in the thirty-plus year history of the WNBL. Before readers begin, be aware of two provisos:

1. All ten teams selected actually won a title rather than simply finished on top of the ladder following the regular season.

2. Discussion, debate and disagreement with this selection is welcomed! Write an email addressed to and let me know what you think!

With all of this in mind, here then is the first half my list, listed from ten through to six:

10. The 2010-11 Bulleen Boomers

Regular Season: 19-3

Finals: Major Semi-Final: 71-67 over Canberra

Grand Final: 103-78 over Canberra

Notables: Liz Cambage, Jenna O’Hea, Rachel Jarry, Tom Maher (coach)

This team has been selected with an eye to history, on what might be. There were enough young and classy players in this line-up to suggest that this title may be the first in a string. This was a team determined to make no mistakes in their run towards the club’s first WNBL title. Having reached the previous two Grand Finals (including a 21-1 regular season the year before).

After losing a Round One Grand Final re-match with the Capitals and then to West Coast in Perth, Bulleen tore off 17 straight wins in a streak that ran from late October through to early February. Their first round loss was their only one at home for the season and their smallest winning margin was seven points which occurred three times. After squeezing out a 71-67 victory over Canberra in the Major Semi-Final, the Boomers made history by crushing their nemesis 103-78 in the Grand Final.

What were the reasons for the success of these Boomers compared to others? Firstly, they had the dominant centre in the League in Elizabeth Cambage. She was a runaway winner of the MVP award while averaging 22.3 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game. Leading the League in scoring and field goal percentage, Cambage was selected to the League’s All Star Five.

As you will see, most of the teams in this list start with an overpowering presence in the middle. Named alongside Cambage in the All Star Five was Jenna O’Hea while Rachel Jarry averaged 14 points and just fewer than six rebounds per game while drawing attention from WNBA scouts. Overall the team averaged 85.25 points per game while conceding 66.5, a ratio of +18.75.

Combined with the proven winning experience of Tom Maher (named WNBL Coach of the Year for the fourth time) on the bench, the 2010-11 Boomers were a powerful unit that thoroughly deserved their championship and their place on the list. Our next entry takes us back to a time when coverage of women’s sport was less than nil and great teams never got the recognition they deserved. Until now...

9. The 1986 Nunawading Spectres

Regular Season: 20-4

Finals: 65-57 over Coburg in Semi-Final

62-51 over A.I.S in Grand Final

Notables: Robyn Maher, Michelle Timms, Shelley Gorman, Tracey Browning, Gaylene McKay, Lynda Palmer, Tom Maher (coach)

This was the first year of an even draw where all 13 teams played each other at home and away. Prior to 1986 some teams played 13 games, others as few as nine. This would prove to be the first in a record four straight titles of Nunawading and was another example of the success of the Spectres’ development and retention policy. From the early 1970’s the Nunawading Association had decided that the way to compete with the traditional Victorian powers such as Melbourne Church (later Tigers) and St. Kilda was that instead of bringing in American imports or interstate stars willy-nilly, they would develop their own talent base and build strong programs off that base. It didn’t take all that long for success to come: in both the men’s and women’s VBA competitions results were attained and even championships won.

The Spectres’ march towards the 1986 title actually began the previous September when they were knocked out at the semi-final stage by the eventual champions Coburg. Christmas was celebrated not with turkey and trimmings but with training sessions and hard work. A key plank in Tom Maher’s coaching philosophy was: “Coach and play as men do.” He certainly trained them that way: at least twice a week, or three times if the WNBL was having a week off. Quite simply, the Spectres were fitter than everybody else and played better in the back half of games.

This was the year in which Shelley Gorman became a star. Her red-hot form through the season would culminate in a Grand Final MVP award (at only 17 years of age) for her performance against the A.I.S. A five minute dry spell for the Students put paid to their chances to completing two upsets for the weekend (they had defeated the higher-ranked Brisbane in the semi-finals). The Spectres finished the season averaging 68.3 points a game while conceding 56.3 a ratio of +12. After the disappointment of the previous year, all was right with the world again: Nunawading was at the top of the tree again and they would be there for some time to come...

Scored 68.3, conceded 56.3 +12

8. The 2004-05 Dandenong Rangers

Regular Season: 19-2

Finals: Major Semi-Final: 63-59 over Bulleen

Grand Final: 52-47 over Sydney Uni

Notables: Jacinta Hamilton, Emily McInerny, Carly Wilson, Jessica Bibby, Samantha Richards, Gary Fox (coach)

It is an old sporting cliché that it is harder for a team to win a second successive title. All of the champion’s opponents prepare for their meeting as though it was a Grand Final: everybody wants a shot to knock off the champs. For that team to improve on their regular season record and sweep through the play-offs is a fine feat indeed.

The team was built around one word: defence. They played a harrying, in-your-face style that got under the skin of their opponents. Their efforts were keyed by future world champion Emily McInerny who would receive her sixth Robyn Maher Defensive Player of the Year Award. Jacinta Hamilton was  a strong presence in the low post while Samantha Richards and Carly Wilson continued the Nunawading tradition of guards who could carve opposing defences to pieces with crisp passing. Interestingly enough Jessica Bibby believed that the 2004/05 campaign was not as strong as the previous season: “It’s our depth that has got us through... It would be nice if we could put together four quarters.” They would take that opportunity in a Grand Final re-match with the Sydney Uni Flames.

The Flames had reached the decider for the fifth season in a row following an extraordinary comeback from 23 points down against Bulleen in the Preliminary Final. In the lead-up to the game most of the  media’s attention was focused on the clash between McInerny and the WNBL’s leading scorer, Sydney hot-shot Belinda Snell. In the end McInerny won the battle with Snell scoring only 12 points on 4/14 from the field. McInerny herself scored only two points but her 14 rebounds and three blocks were of much greater moment to her team. Hamilton was named Grand Final MVP after carrying her team’s offensive load with 23 points and 12 rebounds. In a slow, tense game which saw only six lead changes and four ties it was a sensational performance from a team who had only one member in the Top Ten for MVP votes (Hamilton in 9th with 60).

The final word on these Rangers should go to their coach and future world champion Gary Fox    “This group is looking for respect because...they have not been fully respected for what they’ve accomplished the last two years.” Well Gary, you need look no further: you’ll find plenty of respect here.

Scored 71.8, conceded 61.4 +10.4

7. The 2007-08 Adelaide Lightning

Regular Season: 21-3

Finals: Major Semi-Final: 71-90 vs. Sydney Uni

Preliminary Final: 74-64 over Dandenong

Grand Final: 92-82 over Sydney Uni

Notables: Renae Camino, Tracy Gahan, Jessica Foley, Angela Marino, Erin Phillips, Jenny Whittle Sam Woosnam, Vicki Valk (coach)

What if I told you a story about a club who sacks its head coach three weeks into a season after a reported row between the owner and coach over the playing time of the owner’s daughter? What if I told you that a new coach is hired, a former champion whom no-one expects to do very much, who then turns the team around and doesn’t win Coach of the Year? That would be the story of the 2008 Adelaide Lightning.

It had been a decade since the Lightning had last won a WNBL title. During that time the club had become one of the victims of the well-known financial struggles of Basketball SA and was eventually sold off to businessman Vince Marino. Despite the off-court travails the Lightning had always been there or thereabouts, having not missed the play-offs since their formation in 1993. For head coach Chris Lucas, it was title or bust: having reached a semi-final and two Preliminary Finals, patience and time were fast running out.

Now is not the time to give a blow-by-blow account of the events surrounding Chris Lucas’ dismissal. What surprised was Vince Marino’s choice to replace Lucas: Vicki Valk! Valk, who had been a critical element in three WNBL championships with North Adelaide and Adelaide in the 1990’s, was not the sexy pick outside Adelaide. She was clearly the right choice as her charges ran away with the minor premiership. The Lightning played a free-flowing entertaining brand of basketball that brought favourable comparisons with Phil Smyth’s 36ers teams of the turn of the century. In fact, their average of 97.8 points per game is the highest of any team on this list.

In Tracy Gahan and Jessica Foley, Adelaide had two out and out stars worthy of selection in the All Star Five. Alongside them was a great centre combo in Renae Camino and world champion Jenny Whittle. Whittle was not the only world champion on the team with Erin Phillips playing in the style of her coach. Led inspiringly by Sam Woosnam, Adelaide were hot favourites to take out the title. A stumble in the Major Semi-Final had the experts wondering: would the Lightning stumble at the final hurdle, again? Sweeping by Dandenong in the Preliminary Final, Valk spoke of her team having “some unfinished business”.

With Sydney Uni’s regular venue unavailable, the Grand Final was staged at the Wollongong Entertainment Centre. The lead-up had the Adelaide Advertiser asking whether the team could “Valk the Walk”! Despite a late surge that saw the Flames come back from 17 points to two, the Lightning showed that they had all the answers when it mattered. Camino set a record for an individual score in a Grand Final with 32 points, knocking Lauren Jackson out of a slot in the record book. The League MVP, Sydney Uni’s Natalie Porter, scored 23 points but shot at a miserable 30%, testimony to Adelaide’s defence.  It was the Lightning’s fifth WNBL title, putting them one behind Nunawading for the most in League history.

For their resilience in the face of enormous odds and for the pleasure they gave to fans everywhere this Adelaide squad deserves a place on this list behind one of their more memorable predecessors...

6. The 1995 Adelaide Lightning

Regular Season: 16-2

Finals: Major Semi-Final: 73-63 over Sydney

Grand Final: 50-43 over Melbourne

Notables: Rachael Sporn, Carla Boyd, Michelle Brogan, Trish Hopgood, Jo Hill, Jan Stirling (coach)

This was the third of four straight years in which Adelaide finished with a regular season record of 16-2. It was no wonder as half the Opals squad played under Jan Stirling’s tutelage (the other half played for Sydney, making meetings between the teams the equivalent of an AFL block-buster). As will be argued for a later selection, no matter how good your individual players may be it is the coach’s ability to meld those players together to make ‘A TEAM’ that largely determines their chances of being successful. The team had undergone several changes from their 1994 squad. Vicki Daldy had retired and would be replaced with Jae Kingi. Kristi Harrower and Trina Roberts also departed for greener pastures elsewhere. Michelle Brogan’s knee reconstruction had been a success and she was welcomed back with open arms.  Trudie Hopgood also returned after a two year stint with the Lady Rebels of UNLV. All in all, hopes were high that the Lightning could repeat.

The story of the Lightning’s season can be shrunken down into one game: their Grand Final with 1994 opponent the Melbourne Tigers. As finals are in most sports the match was a test of wills: who would be the first to bend, the first to break? The Tigers, intent on playing a slow, patient, ‘European’ style, led 25-22 at half-time. With a League record crowd of 7100 at the Adelaide Arena becoming ever more anxious, Stirling called time-out with 8:35 left and her team down 39-32. Reminding her players that it was now or never, Stirling urged her charges on towards one final gut-busting effort. Not willing to let a second championship slip away, they responded with a 10-0 run that turned the game decisively in their favour. It was Adelaide’s 22nd consecutive victory at home, snapping a mark first set in 1987. The Lightning had proved that they were worthy champions and the equal of any team in the League’s first fifteen years.

Rachael Sporn, having made her fourth consecutive All Star Five team, led the scoring in the Grand Final with 14 points and seven rebounds. Brogan made up for missing out on the previous year with 12 points as well as seven rebounds.

Next week, Part Two of ‘The Ten Greatest Teams in WNBL History’

Remember, if you’ve got a gripe, write to and put ’10 Greatest WNBL Teams’ in the subject line. See you next week for ‘Back in The Day’.