JCU Townsville Fire recovered from an awful start and showed their defensive mettle, with star guard Lauren Nicholson providing the offensive spark in a 70-64 last round win over fellow Chemist Warehouse WNBL finalists Deakin Melbourne Boomers on Sunday.
Needing a win to have any chance of making the top two, Townsville missed their first eight field goals, and it took them over four and a half minutes to score after trailing 0-8.
Townsville shot just 27 per cent from the field in the first quarter but their offensive execution and defensive intensity lifted after they trailed 16-9 at quarter time.
They outscored Melbourne 31-17 in the second quarter to lead by seven at halftime.
In front of a noisy and supportive Townsville Stadium crowd, the Fire never trailed in the second half, though Melbourne did slash the gap to one in the third quarter.
The result dropped Melbourne one spot to fourth and means they will have to take the longer route to the title by going through an elimination semi to be played on Wednesday.
Nicholson continued her stellar campaign with 23 points, six rebounds and four assists.
Forward Zitina Aokuso and guard Kate Gaze helped the Fire to sizeable 27-8 advantage in scoring off the bench.
Aokuso dominated inside, missing just one of eight field goal shots in scoring16 points, she also added seven boards.
Gaze scored 11, making all four of her field goals, including three long bombs.
“The toughness we showed defensively after a slow start, being able to grind that one out, is a credit to our team,” Fire head coach Shannon Seebohm said.
“We didn’t start the game very well and to be honest probably didn’t play as well as we would have liked throughout the entire contest.
“But that’s the beauty I think (of) our team, the girls never give up. They play as hard as they can and we were able to pull out a win.”
The irrepressible Nicholson scored the first five points of the second half to open up a 12-point gap, but a 14-3 run in Melbourne’s favour sparked by Cayla George and Tess Madgen cut the deficit to one.
The Fire scored nine of the last 11 points of the quarter to lead by eight going into the fourth and Melbourne couldn’t get any close than five in the last.
Opals forward Ezi Magbegor toiled productively inside for Melbourne, scoring 20 on a 64 per cent clip from the field and added ten boards and three assists.
Fellow big George stuffed her individual stats line with 18 points, 17 rebounds, four assists, three steals and three blocks and guard Madgen added 11 points and eight dimes.
“You don’t often lose games when you hold a team to 70 points,” Boomers’ assistant coach Larissa Anderson said.
“Our turnovers and we just didn’t capitalise, we had some really really good looks and they just didn’t fall for us.”
The Fire have to wait until the result of the Jayco Southside Flyers and UC Capitals game to find out their semi-finals opponent. Should the Flyers win, they will meet the Fire, should the Capitals win then the Fire will play the Boomers in an elimination game.
Adrian Warren is a freelance contributor to WNB.basketball
JCU Townsville Fire 70 (L Nicholson 23, Z Aokuso 16, K Gaze 11)
Deakin Melbourne Boomers 64 (E Magbegor 20, C George 18, T Madgen 11)