2023 WNBL Season Review: Part 1 – The top four
By Hayley Wildes | The Pick and Roll
The 2022/23 WNBL season came to a close on Wednesday night and as the Townsville Fire lifted the trophy, all other teams fell short of the ultimate goal.
Townsville’s season is one for the record books, but as they celebrate – and deservedly so – the seven other teams have to improve ahead of next season.
In this two-part series, we’re taking a look back at the season that was by breaking down each team and also looking ahead to next season as it’s never too early to get excited for the 2023/24 campaign.
Townsville Fire: Champions
It doesn’t get much better than 16 wins on the trot on the way to a Championship. The Fire truly found another gear in the second half of the season and no other team was able to really challenge them.
The Fire’s last loss was a January 5 encounter against the Adelaide Lightning, and from that moment on, they simply dominated, with an average winning margin of 15 points per game over their 16 wins to round out the season.
Shannon Seebohm, who deservedly won Coach of the Year honours, led his Fire squad perfectly after building a squad that would complement the star Australian guards in Lauren Nicholson and Steph Reid. It often makes or breaks a team by getting the import signings right, and it’s fair to say Townsville got theirs spot on with Tianna Hawkins (Grand Final MVP) and Karlie Samuelson fitting right in.
Townsville had one of the deepest squads in recent memory. Having the luxury of bringing Shyla Heal and Zitina Aokuso off the bench says all you need to know about the star power the Fire possessed.
16 wins in a row.
Undefeated in the post-season.
2022/23 WNBL Championship.
Coach of the Year.
Grand Final MVP.
After the season the Fire enjoyed, it’s fair to say they’ll be looking to keep their core group together and bring back their imports. In the WNBL it is somewhat uncommon to re-sign superstar imports, but as the Melbourne Boomers did with Tiffany Mitchell this season, the Fire will be hoping Hawkins, and Samuelson, will be back for next season.
The backcourt pairing of Nicholson and Reid is absolutely elite and having already locked up Reid for next season is a massive coup for the Fire. Reid has solidified herself as one of the premier guards in Australia and is only getting better.
Southside Flyers: Runner Up
The Southside Flyers fought their way to the Grand Final series and given the key season-ending injuries to captain Aimie Rocci, young gun Dallas Loughridge and the GOAT Lauren Jackson, the Flyers have nothing to be ashamed of by falling short at the final hurdle.
Southside showed a lot of guts to make it past Melbourne in their Semi-Final series, answering the challenge by bouncing back from a tough Game 2 loss to win it on their own floor in one of the best games in recent memory in the series-clinching Game 3.
The continued development of Maddy Rocci was a highlight for the Flyers as she took her game to the next level and proved she deserves to be mentioned among the top guards in the country. With averages of 13.5 points, 4.9 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game, she really did do it all as her competitiveness shone through, especially in the semi-final match-up against Kristy Wallace.
The play of import Kayla Thornton was another bright spot as she earned All-WNBL First Team honours, while Bec Cole rose to the occasion throughout the Finals series, and played a lone hand on offence in the Grand Final games, averaging 23 points per game.
Being unable to reach the 70-point mark in either Grand Final game indicates just how much of a struggle it was on offence for the Flyers. As I said above, it was Cole who kept the scoreboard ticking over, while none of her teammates scored over 12 points in either game. That was never going to be enough to challenge a Fire outfit with incredible depth.
Who knows what the future holds for Lauren Jackson, but the Flyers surely can’t depend on having her back next season. I’ll never doubt what Jackson is capable of overcoming, and I would love nothing more than to see her back in the WNBL next season, but placing that pressure on her is just unfair.
With that in mind, the Flyers will be looking to add more frontcourt depth, and if Southside is able to bring back Thornton, that would be a massive coup. It would be remiss not mention the play of Nyadiew Puoch, who has absolutely established herself as a rising star of Australian basketball. Look for her to play more minutes next season and bring plenty of defensive focus and intent.
The backcourt pairing of Cole and Maddy Rocci is a great starting point, but the return of Aimie Rocci would help shore up the backcourt depth, as would Dallas Loughridge.
Melbourne Boomers: Semi Finalist
Going back-to-back is the toughest of tasks and while the Boomers fell short of their ultimate goal, they came within one-point of advancing to the Grand Final series.
Despite Tess Madgen playing just 17 minutes all season, the Boomers did their best to cover her loss as the superstar trio of Cayla George, Kristy Wallace and Tiffany Mitchell did all they could.
George’s season was absolutely spectacular and her career-best form was the key to Melbourne winning as many games as they did. Her ability to score inside and outside, fight for every rebound and facilitate from the top of the key ensured Melbourne were in most contests throughout the season.
Wallace taking her game to new heights was great for Australian basketball fans to see and her constant fight on both ends of the court is a difference-maker.
In the end, the Boomers depth just wasn’t there and the big three couldn’t drag their team over the line in the series against the Flyers. George and Mitchell both playing the most minutes per game in the league (over 36 per game) proves just how heavily they were relied upon.
Dropping pivotal home games against Perth and Bendigo in late January proved to be extremely costly, as a win in either of those two match-ups would’ve given Melbourne home-court advantage in the series against Southside.
Will the Boomers be able to bring back Tiffany Mitchell for a third season? If they do, Melbourne will remain very much in the Championship hunt. It says a lot about the Boomers organisation to be able to get Mitchell back for her second season, and a third would be even more impressive.
George and Wallace are obviously the other keys to the Boomers, and the team’s downfall this season was a lack of depth, so look for Melbourne to go after strong role players. Finding a way to replace Mia Murray, who has retired after a magnificent career, will be a real challenge and losing her will only make finding key role players more important.
They found a real player in Miela Goodchild, and I would’ve loved to see her get more court time in the post-season, as she proved she’s capable of having an impact at the level. It can’t be forgotten that a fit and firing Tess Madgen would make a world of difference too.
Perth Lynx: Semi Finalist
The final 14 games of the regular season!
The Perth Lynx finished the regular season off in dominant fashion, proving they weren’t afraid of the big moments as they won virtual elimination games consistently in the last month and a half of the season to sneak past Bendigo for the final post-season spot.
An 11-3 end to the regular season was enough to help Perth overcome a slow start to the season, and although they were unable to get a game off Townsville in their Semi-Final series, the Lynx’s signature fight and hustle shone through as they made the Fire work for the series win.
Additions Chloe Bibby and Robbi Ryan really lifted as Perth made their run to the post-season, playing a huge role alongside stars Sami Whitcomb and Lauren Scherf.
The first seven games of the season!
A 2-5 start to the season made every game in the run home a must-win for the Lynx and the fact they overcame that slow start to make the post-season was a credit to Ryan Petrik and his players.
There’s no doubt a better start to the season would’ve made life easier for Perth, allowing more rest for their star players within games, but the grit and determination needed to stay afloat became synonymous with the Lynx.
It all starts with Sami Whitcomb, who was awarded All-WNBL First Team honours with averages of 18.4 points, 4.8 assists and 4.3 rebounds. Every night you know you’re going to get 100% effort and passion from Whitcomb and she’s the type of player that raises the level of players around her.
The continual improvement of Lauren Scherf has made her one of the best bigs in Australia, and retaining her will be key to the Lynx putting together another strong team next season. Her versatility, being able to go to work in the paint and drain triples is hard to find and what makes her so dangerous.
Alongside Scherf and Whitcomb, I’m sure Perth would love to have Chloe Bibby re-sign, likewise with Alex Sharp.
Perth’s wishlist for next season would be to add another high-end guard. They relied too heavily on Whitcomb, and with the frontcourt in strong order if they bring back the above mentioned players, a complimentary guard who can handle large minutes as the primary ball-handler would push the Lynx forward.