WBBL playoffs: Eagles take flight towards Suns; Wildcats to use pride against Lions
Watch coverage of the WBBL semi-finals on the Sky Sports YouTube channel from 5pm on Friday when the Suns tip-off against the Eagles, then at 7.30pm the Lions face the Wildcats
By Huw Hopkins
Last Updated: 07/05/21 11:41am
It was the last game of the Championship season for the Leicester Riders, so they threw everything at the Sevenoaks Suns to ruin the Kent-based team's undefeated WBBL season a few weeks ago.
"It was a really big achievement," Riders center Azania Stewart told Sky Sports after the win. "Being down 22 points, we could have just folded and got beaten by 40. For us to fight back against the number one team, that’s why we celebrated."
WBBL Play-Offs, 2021
|Semi-Finals||Sevenoaks Suns vs Newcastle Eagles|
|London Lions v Nottingham Wildcats|
The celebrations, however, didn’t last long. A few days later, Leicester were facing the seventh-seeded Newcastle Eagles in the Play-offs, After the Riders caused an upset to the best team in the league, they became the victim, as the first second seed in WBBL history to be knocked out in the first round.
At this stage of the season, it’s all about match-ups, and the Riders couldn’t stop Abby Lowe. The British guard-forward scored 26 points, shooting four of six from three, with three rebounds, two assists and seven (7!) steals.
"I couldn’t ask for anything more," she told Sky Sports.
"I wanted to come back this season and enjoy basketball again, and whatever happened from that I would have been happy with. The group of girls we’ve got this season have been amazing. We've had so much fun, and the game against the Riders proved it.
"We all had a good time and all came out saying we were going to give it our all. And that feeling when I was playing reminded me why I played in the first place."
It was great to see the Brit shine after playing college basketball in the States. The Eagles have put together a decent roster but faced issues with health and players leaving to play in Europe this year.
They still boast Americans Alison Gorrell and Maddy McVicar, but head coach Chris Bunten is pleased to see the former British Junior national team player get back to herself and offer support at this critical point of the season.
"Ali is supposed to perform as an import, so is Maddy," he said.
"The rest, there’s no expectations so people probably count us out because they may not have heard of too many of them. Abby has come back here and found her love and passion for the game now, and we can see what she can do."
This three-headed perimeter play exhibited against Leicester will be needed to match up with an elite group of elite guards on Sevenoaks, and Bunten knows exactly what to expect from his opponents in the Semi-final.
"Sevenoaks really rely on smart guard play. Stopping Cat Carr and TaYani Clarke is a different beast because they can score from any given position," Bunten told Sky Sports.
"They played previously for team Northumbria, so I know exactly what they’re capable of, but they also have weapons in Janice Monakana and Renee Busch, who can shoot the three in devastating fashion. We’re really going to have to stop the ball, avoid penetration and keep the two top players as quiet as we possibly can."
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.
Sevenoaks made quick work of Oaklands Wolves in the first round of the Play-offs, but going into the contest, Wolves guard Melita Emanual-Carr liked their chances against the Suns thanks to how they matched up.
"Before playing Sevenoaks earlier in the season, we had to sit out for 10 days to isolate," she said.
"That was our first game back and we only lost by a few points, so it kind of just goes to show that a bottom team can be a top team. It comes down to whoever is in form on the day.”
Unfortunately, Oakland had three players out due to injury, including Emanuel-Carr, by the time the game tipped off. The Wolves were knocked out to leave the Suns take on the Eagles in the Semi-final, while the London Lions will face the Nottingham Wildcats in the three versus four seed.
The Lions' Kennedy Leonard is the hottest newcomer to the WBBL this season: a walking triple-double and an MVP contender, who has turned around a franchise that won zero games in the Championship last season to a potential Play-offs winner.
On the opposite end of the court is Chelsey Shumpert: the point guard who can go off against anyone thanks to a confident dribble and a scoring range that stretches far beyond the three-point line.
Seeing these two go head to head will be worth the price of admission, and Wildcats legend - and current WBBL commentator - Siobhan Prior believes this will be a close one to call.
"The London-Nottingham match-up will prove to be a really exciting one," Prior told Sky Sports.
"On paper it might look like a foregone conclusion because London has won every previous meeting thus far but the paper doesn't show everything.
"The keys for Nottingham will be to limit the Lions’ fast break points, handle the defensive pressure and limit mistakes. They are the most exciting team to watch this year in most part due to the unparalleled play of Kennedy Leonard, she is the most skilled, effective and exciting player in the league.
"But Simone Costa has been unstoppable for the Wildcats over the latter half of the season and I expect another big game from her. Chelsey will always look to carry the team offensively and the Wildcats will need a big contribution from her to help them through to the final.
"History may dictate that London will cruise to victory but the Wildcats are powered by a wonderful organisation and are playing for more than just the team. They won’t want to let the club down and will pull out all the stops to try to sneak the win.”
Whoever comes out of the London-Nottingham clash, it might not matter. It’s going to take something special to block out the Suns.
Manchester Mystics center and GB international Hannah Shaw agrees, and told Sky Sports: "I think Sevenoaks will win it all. I’m not sure anyone will stop them this year."
But the Eagles don’t want to hear it. They became the first seventh seed to take down a two seed in WBBL history, and they plan on playing loose and free in the Semi-finals.
Lowe said: "When we play how we want to, which is aggressive and driving, and getting to the rim, that’s when we play our best. We're going to stick to what we do and just be aware of the team we’re playing, stick to the game plan and make a few tweaks to slow them down.
"If I start thinking about it, I might get stressed. I'm going to go back the way it was against Leicester. No pressure, no expectations. I want to have fun and I want to enjoy my time with my teammates on court, and if that doesn't get us the win, then even if we lose I'll still be happy."
Follow the WBBL and BBL play-offs on Sky Sports, right through to both finals which take place on Sunday May 16.