MILLICENT Magic fans were left on the edge of their seats during Saturday night’s Country Basketball League South West women’s conference grand final in Portland.
Up against minor premiers the Warrnambool Mermaids in the 2019-20 season decider, Millicent left it until the final five minutes of play to steal the lead and secure back-to-back championships.
Emily Winter was again a guiding light for the Magic with a game-high 31 points and the title of most valuable player in the final.
She received solid backing under the hoop from Madi Haggett who scored 22 points, which included some pivotal free throws to ice the game late in the fourth term.
Warrnambool was not there to make friends and it was made clear early in the piece, with a physical first quarter setting up an eight-point lead for the Mermaids.
“The first quarter of that game was absolutely brutal – it was so physical,” Millicent coach Peter Seebohm said.
“But we knew if we could weather that storm, we were in with a chance.
“Although we were down by eight at quarter time, they could have taken us out of the game in that first quarter and they did not.”
That came back to bite the Mermaids in the end and despite Millicent trailing at every break, they remained within striking distance.
Heading into the fourth quarter the Magic were down by five, but carried momentum into the final stanza.
“It was pretty satisfying as the game unfolded, but it was a bit nervous for a while,” Seebohm said.
“We had a bit of a theme for the whole game about staying to our plan and making sure we execute it – we did not execute very well in the first quarter.
“Their strength and the way they were playing, it was like a group of mature women playing against a group of girls.”
However, Millicent braved the initial onslaught and stuck to its guns for the following three quarters, eventually turning the game on its head.
“The message was to just stay to plan, tighten up a little bit in the defensive area and things would start to turn,” Seebohm said.
“At half time you could see that – although we were still eight points down – we had broken even in that second quarter.
“In the third quarter we kept playing the same way, while just tweaking a couple of things in offence.”
Seebohm said while Warrnambool’s experience was vast compared to the young Magic team, Millicent’s young legs proved an advantage late in the game.
“We knew with the build up we had after Christmas that our fitness was pretty good,” he said.
“We just had to keep playing the game we wanted to play and we knew towards the end they (Warrnambool) would have some very tired bodies.”
Eventually that theory paid off and after an even start to the fourth quarter, the Mermaids’ foul troubles began.
Just after the three-minute mark Katie O’Keefe gave away the first foul of the term, which saw Winter convert both free throws and put the Magic within one point.
A Winter foul followed and the margin was back out to three, but when Emily and Alana Winter both scored twos, Millicent found itself in front for the first time since the opening minutes of the match.
With the game in the balance a free throw from Warrnambool’s Jae Leddin levelled the scores and from there both teams traded blows.
With three minutes to play it was still anyone’s game, with an Emily Winter two putting the Magic three points ahead.
However, that was when Warrnambool slipped up and a string of fouls all-but iced the game for Millicent.
Haggett stepped up to the foul line to shoot seven from eight free throws and push the margin out to 10 points with two and a half minutes on the clock.
“Just before the game had turned and I thought we really had the upper hand,” Seebohm said.
“Then for a young kid at 16 years old to walk up to the foul line and shoot seven out of eight in the last few minutes was outstanding.”
From there Haggett and Emily Winter both hit the board and the margin was at 14 points when Seebohm called a timeout with a minute and a half to play.
Millicent returned to the court in impressive fashion and prevented the Mermaids from scoring again to claim a 15-point win at the final buzzer.
Seebohm could not have been prouder of his team and said there were no passengers on the night.
“To be such a young team, it is pretty sensational really,” he said.
“We had nine players on the weekend and all of them contributed.
“I know it is easy to say that when you win, but everyone played their role.”
Heidi Clark was again a rock in defence and her ability to guard bigger players was a standout, while Seebohm said Alana Winter brought plenty of “hustle”, particularly in the second half of the match.
Madi Turner’s defensive effort on Nicole Gynes was another crucial factor in the win, as the latter threatened to break loose in the opening quarter.
Seebohm also gave credit to Lucy Denton, Jess Venn, Sally Houlihan and Georgia Winter, who all played their roles well.
To wrap up the perfect season, Emily Winter was also recognised at the Country Basketball League season presentations.
“Emily cleaned up the awards ceremony,” Seebohm said.
“She was leading scorer for the league, MVP for the league, made the All Star five and was named the best player in the final – I do not think there was much more she could have won.”
For Emily her attention will now turn towards the 2020 NBL1 season, as she gears up with the Mount Gambier Pioneers women for the second year.