2021 WBBL play-offs preview: The comeback queens braced for May Madness
Watch the Sevenoaks Suns, Oaklands Wolves, Leicester Riders, Newcastle Eagles, London Lions, Essex Rebels, Nottingham Wildcats and Manchester Met Mystics in the WBBL play-off quarter-finals; follow the WBBL and BBL play-offs on Sky Sports, right through to both finals on Sunday May 16.
By Huw Hopkins
Last Updated: 30/04/21 4:23pm
The WBBL is at a unique point in its seven-year history. There are athletes in the league now who began learning to play basketball just as it was being launched in 2014.
The women’s game in Britain has proven to be an inspiration over the past decade: the country competed in the Olympics in 2012; England won a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in 2018; Britain made a deep EuroBasket run in 2019; multiple players have competed in the WNBA or in top European leagues.
Meanwhile, those young girls that might have been inspired to play the game half a dozen years ago are finding themselves playing against some of those national heroes in the WBBL.
Azania Stewart personifies the journey women’s basketball has taken in the UK. She was a 23-year-old college athlete playing for the Florida Gators when she returned to London in 2012 to pull on the Team GB colours. After graduating, she went on to have a great career, playing in Spain, Australia and Hungary before closing out her professional career competing in EuroCup with TTT Riga in Latvia, and captured a Commonwealth medal then helped Britain qualify for EuroBasket.
WBBL Play-Offs, 2021
|Quarter-Finals||Sevenoaks Suns vs Oaklands Wolves|
|Leicester Riders vs Newcastle|
|Nottingham Wildcats v Manchester Mystics|
|London Lions v Essex Rebels|
She retired in 2018 with 101 caps and a commendable career. But on February 25 this year, the 6ft 5in center confirmed that we would see her back-to-the-basket, low-post, cross-court passes on full display once again.
“I hadn’t played the two years prior, and I didn’t miss basketball at all,” Stewart said while nursing an aching body after the 32-year-old grabbed 18 rebounds to hand the Sevenoaks Suns their only loss of the season last weekend.
“I was going to do my retirement life, and I felt good about it. I was working with FIBA, commentating, so that kind of kept me in the game, but even watching it, I didn't feel the urge to like, go pick up the basketball.”
One thing Stewart had done throughout her retirement was helping the British team in any way she could, occasionally as a training camp player and as the Covid-19 officer this past year.
She said: “These last two FIBA windows in November last year, and then this February, I still had it, I was keeping up with the girls. I needed a few more subs and breaks, but I was really just helping them because they were having a long season, so I was just subbing for Temi Fagbenle, who had obviously played a lot of minutes. I felt good and I felt like I had missed it. Honestly, it was like a drug, like the adrenaline of just like, wow, competing.”
Another player on the British roster during those recent windows was Scotland’s Hannah Robb, the 18-year-old sharpshooter who plays her professional basketball with the Riders. With a few players leaving Leicester this season, word about Stewart’s renewed passion got back to the franchise, and within a few weeks, the big was dusting off her Nikes.
WBBL Play-Offs - How it works
Both teams only play each other once with the winners of these games advancing to the Semi Finals.
The highest remaining seed (highest league placing) will face the lowest seed in one semi final and the other two quarter final winners meeting in the other semi final.
Coming out of retirement has been a shock to Stewart’s system - and her knees - but her England team-mate from the Gold Coast in 2018, Melita Emmanuel-Carr, is performing a comeback of her own.
One game into the 2019-2020 season with the London Lions, Emanuel-Carr wrecked her ACL. She had to undergo surgery and deal with months of rehab to get back onto the basketball court.
In danger of missing a full second season, she put feelers out to join a WBBL team before the signing deadline passed this year, and said: “I wanted to stay close to home because I wanted to still keep rehabbing with the same strength and conditioning coach. I was training with the Lions but the roster was pretty full, so the Essex Rebels offered me a contract, and the Sevenoaks Suns offered me one as well.”
Keep that in mind: averaging 9.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and two assists in the nine games since returning from major surgery, Emanuel-Carr could have joined the WBBL Championship winning Sevenoaks Suns, the team that only lost one game all season.
She said: “I wanted to have a main role on a team, so if I didn't perform, we weren’t going to win. At Sevenoaks I could have just relaxed and I definitely needed to be pushed, especially as I came back very early in my ACL recovery. I wanted to use the games to just push myself to see where I was in my recovery as well.”
There was a mental strain for being out for so long, but Emanuel-Carr kept her spirits high by seeing improvements week on week, from being able to stand, then straighten her leg, and walk, then run. But returning early and pushing herself hard has its downsides, like when she tweaked her knee against the Newcastle Eagles on April 11.
She said: “There are times where I’m feeling 100 per cent, and then it can just drop to like 10 per cent, which is what happened in the Newcastle game. I tried to close out and then be in denial and the person went back door. As soon as I tried to turn, my knee just went. And the next day, I was sore for a while.”
#1 Suns will be facing the #8 @oaklandsball in the first round of May Madness in the Vertu Motors Arena in Newcastle on Saturday, May 1st, 5PM— Sevenoaks Suns (@SevenoaksSuns) April 30, 2021
Due to the social media boycott, the Quarter Finals will be shown on BBL Player for FREE. https://t.co/El1nwKg3xo pic.twitter.com/5tMSexEdLV
For Stewart and Emanuel-Carr, their respective returns have been successful aside from a few aches and pains, and as the WBBL Playoffs tip off on Sky Sports this weekend for May Madness, both are hoping for success, knowing that anything can happen at this stage of the season.
Stewart is thrilled that she can contribute to a Finals run, and is feeling great about the impact she can have on an inexperienced roster. She said: “I have played at such a high level, so coming back to the WBBL is the perfect level for me. I can play at this level at this age.
“I really just try to help them as much as I can, and they're so great. They keep me feeling young. They’re 10 years younger than me, and Katie Januszewska is 15 years younger than me. But I just try to teach them like life lessons within basketball, and get them to really enjoy this moment, especially through how it’s been the last year. It's something special that people aren't able to do. So treat it that way, you know?”
Stewart admitted that joining the team has been a huge help during some mental-health-challenging months in lockdown, but she has also helped the Riders finish second in the Championship this season. She doesn’t have too many years left but might return for another round in 2021-22.
At 26, Emanuel-Carr will be entering her physical peak after recovering from a major injury, and hopes this run will attract the eyes of a team overseas so she can fulfill her dream of playing in EuroCup.
For the next few weeks, however, there is just one thing on her mind. As the Oakland Wolves enter the playoffs, Emanuel-Carr said: “It’s really exciting because anyone can win any game.”
The guard is brimming with confidence and wants to take on the best the league can offer.
“It comes down to whoever is in form on the day. We are either playing Leicester or Sevenoaks but I’m hoping we get Sevenoaks because I think we match up better to them. We don’t really have a big who can kind of control Azania or even Ella Clarke so I’d rather have the game be about the guards and stopping Cat Carr, TaYani Clark and Janice Monakana - so that's what I'm hoping for.”
Whether the top teams like Sevenoaks, Leicester or London win out, or if there is an upset from the likes of Oaklands or Essex, the level of talent in the league is so much better than when the WBBL launched seven years ago - it makes each playoff match-up one to watch.
Thanks to the returning talent like Stewart and Emanuel-Carr, as well as the American products like Cat Carr and Kennedy Leonard, the young WBBL is starting to grow up, and the presence of these top players is a sign of things to come.
Follow the WBBL and BBL play-offs on Sky Sports, right through to both finals which take place on Sunday May 16.