Ipswich Basketball Club’s Senior Women have been crowned WNBL Division One National Champions, after the decision was made to finish the season a week early due to the Coronavirus outbreak, Basketball England has announced.
Ipswich were handed the title on account of their 15-2 record, the best in the league, and their league best winning percentage (88.24%). National Cup Winners, Anglian Ruskin University were announced as league runners-up due to their 14-2 record (87.5%), but will understandably feel hard done by, having held the head-to head advantage over Ipswich, meaning if the two teams had finished the season on the same record, ARU would have been the champions.
“While we will enjoy this moment, we do not feel like we have fully earned the title of National Champions. There was still basketball to be played and we genuinely feel that at least part of this belongs to Anglia Ruskin – it’s been a great battle with them all season” Said Ipswich Head Coach Nick Drane. Drane added “This is not how we wanted to be crowned Champions. But, after the season we have had, with so much bad luck with injuries, maybe we deserve this”.
Despite the manner in which Ipswich have been named champions, their latest national title comes after a truly magnificent effort from a team that has battled injuries and illness to key players all season. There was uncertainty all pre-season with regard to the team’s roster going into the first game. American point guard Coco Leung, the teams only new player, was only finally confirmed as a signing the day before the first game of the season, that same day was her first training session with the team. Drane recalls “Coco trained with the team on Friday, rolled her ankle badly and it looked like should wouldn’t be able to play on the Saturday – but she taped it up and toughed it out. The funny thing I remember from that was Danni (Cazey) wasn’t able to train on that Friday, so the first time those two stepped on court together was literally the first game of the season. We kind of made it up as we went along”.
Great Britain star, and now Gonzaga University commit, Esther Little suffered a fractured foot over the summer, and was ruled out until after Christmas, meaning the team went into the season with much uncertainty. “The goal was to get to Christmas in the top four and make a major push to win the playoffs in the second half of the season, when we had everyone back and healthy. We basically saw the season as an opportunity to get better, with the playoffs being our goal” said Drane. However, the team’s lack of a pre-season, and the absence of one of their star players, seemed to spur them on. A double figure win on the road at league champions Bristol to start the season, followed a win at home to Southwark Pride saw the team off to the perfect start. Then came the game that looked like it could end up deciding the title, an 81-96 loss on the road to Anglia Ruskin, that would later give the Cambridge based side a head to head advantage over Ipswich. A bounce back win away to Thames Valley was followed by the teams only other loss of the season, at home to Solent Kestrels by just two points. Solent had beaten ARU the weak before and sat top of the table in the early stages with an undefeated record, as the league table began to take shape. However, Ipswich would not lose another game. Wins against Nottingham and Bristol saw the Suffolk side move to a 5-2 record. At this point in the season, the second wave on injuries came in. GB players Cameron Taylor-Willis and Becky Harwood-Bellis both suffered a concussion, Taylor-Willis would miss the next fortnight while Harwood-Bellis was ruled out until the new year. The team travelled to Loughborough with just six healthy players, and pulled off an impressive thirty-point win, missing three hugely important players, as it became clear that the team’s character and tenacity was its greatest strength. They simply didn’t let anything stop them. “We said at the start of the season that we didn’t want to make any excuses this season. Whatever we have, we will go with, and if it’s not enough to get the win, then so be it. That philosophy really helped us”.
The team were dealt a further blow when young star Susannah Rafiu suffered a dislocated shoulder in an academy game, just days before what would perhaps become the team’s season defining game. In the final game before Christmas Ipswich hosted the talented Reading Rockets. With just six players, without Little, without Harwood-Bellis and without Rafiu, and with Cameron Taylor-Willis playing with flu, the team battled back from a 19-point half time deficit, to win by a single point, a Harriet Welham free-throw with two seconds to play. Welham’s forty points, without coming out of the game, was perhaps her greatest performance, leading a great team effort, with what looked like an absolute refusal to lose. At the Christmas break Ipswich sat third in the league, with the same record as Solent (2nd). Their goal of being in the top four at the mid-season break achieved.
The second half of the season saw the team welcome Esther Little back into the line-up. Becky Harwood-Bellis was also back, and with Taylor-Willis fully recovered from the flu, the team was nearing full strength. The re-signing of academy product Grace Sinnott also added some much-needed depth on the bench. A road win at Southwark to start 2020 was the perfect chance to blow away the Christmas cobwebs, heading into the teams next game – Anglia Ruskin at home. ARU took an 11-point lead into the half time break, but another trademark comeback saw Ipswich bombard their opponents from the three-point line on their way to a six-point win, a win that would ultimately hand Ipswich the National Championship. Having played a game more than ARU, this meant Ipswich moved to the top of the table, a position it would turn out, that they would not relinquish for the rest of the season. Thames Valley, Solent, Nottingham, Barking Abbey twice and Loughborough were all dispatched by large winning margins as Ipswich seemed to just get better and better, heading into the final weeks of the season, with Rafiu back in the line-up and for the first time all season, with ten fit players.
With just a single game to play, Ipswich were confident that they could increase their winning streak to thirteen games on the road to Reading in the hope that ARU would drop one of their remaining two games, either on the road to Southwark or on the road to Reading. Alas, these final games were not to be. Ipswich were crowned champions after Basketball England were forced to make a tough decision regarding not only this competition, but every competition in the National League.
“I really feel for ARU. I know I would feel pretty bitter if the situation was reversed. However, our programmed missed out on the chance to play in the WEABL Final because of this situation, a competition we felt we had a really good chance of winning. It’s an unprecedented situation, which nobody wants to benefit from. That being said, my team have been nothing short of sensational all season, and were good enough to win the National Championship this season, and these amazing players deserve it”.
Ipswich were led by another remarkable season from Harriet Welham. The club captain averaged a league best thirty-two points per game, shooting over 50% from the field for the season. She featured in the top ten in every single statistical category, which surely makes her a contender for National Player of the Year. Cameron Taylor-Willis and Coco Leung also scored double figures per game. Danni Cazey had a quiet first half of the season, averaging in single digits, but played the best basketball of her career after the new year, posting more than seventeen points per game in the team’s final eight games. Youngsters Susannah Rafiu, Ella Pearson, Becky Harwood-Bellis and Charlotte Redhead all played a huge role for the team, with Redhead in particular, blossoming in the second half of the season, being one of just four players (Welham, Cazey and Pearson) to feature in every game for the team. Esther Little, due to injury, only featured in five games for the team, but still averaged an eleven-point, fourteen rebound double-double. Little still found time to be named WNBL Player of the Week for her performance against Nottingham, while Charlotte Redhead also received the award for the first time after recording a huge triple double in what would be the team’s final game of the season against Loughborough. Harriet Welham received National Player of the Week an incredible seven times.
The 2019/2020 season will be remembered by many as the season that didn’t finish, a season that was incomplete. However, Ipswich Basketball Club did all they could this season. They will be remembered as a team that wouldn’t quit. They didn’t hide behind excuses when they were down to as few as six healthy players, and they didn’t hide when they were down by double figures in the biggest games. This team fought until the end, in every situation they were put in this season. And the result, the history books will show a National Championship.
The team would like to dedicate this championship to the heroic work of the NHS staff during this unprecedented time. Their tireless sacrifice in the face of such a crisis is an inspiration to us all.
Basketball England Article: https://www.basketballengland.co.uk/conclusion-of-201920-nbl-season-announced