The Ipswich Basketball crowd were back in HQ, the drums were beating and the atmosphere was as good as ever as the new look Ipswich Senior Women fought back from nine points down to record an important win to start the season.
The starting line-up for the home team included debuts for American guard Ava Battese and the inside presence of Yassin Belle-Mbaye, both students at the University of Essex, as part of their performance basketball programme. Joining the two newcomers were highly thought of Academy prospect Saruna Gudza, and sixteen-year-old GB Youth International Hannah Gray – with newly appointed captain, and experienced National Champion, Cameron Taylor-Willis rounded out the starting unit.
Both teams made a nervous start to the game, with more turnovers than points in the early moments. However, a three-pointer from Taylor-Willis and a strong drive to the basket from Saruna Gudza, saw Ipswich open-up lead that got the crowd going. However, Thames Valley are an experienced team, who made the playoffs last season on account of a strong run of wins towards the season’s end, and that experience showed as the visitors won both the first and second period.
Ipswich were clearly looking to find some chemistry, with so many new faces in the line-up and having only had one session with Battese before Saturday’s game. However, it was the home side’s stifling defence, anchored by Belle-Mbaye and Taylor-Willis, that kept them in the game. Mid-way through the second period, TVC took their lead to nine points, but after a series of stops, and a key three-pointer from another new face, 16 year-old Olivia Forster, this sparked an Ipswich run that got things within three going into the half time break.
The second half started with TVC again extending their lead, however, Ipswich finally got things closer to the tempo we are accustomed to seeing from them, and this sparked Ava Battese into life as the American guard connected on back-to-back three-point shots to keep Ipswich within three going into the final quarter. The fourth was where Ipswich found a new gear. Millie Pearson was introduced into the game, and a third big, athletic rebounding presence changed the momentum, as did a series of huge plays from Forster, who made back-to-back three-pointers, as well as a beautiful assist and some key defensive plays which seemed to inspire the rest of the team. Battese was suddenly on fire, making two more from distance, while Belle-Mbaye was domnating the paint as the Suffolk side suddenly blew the lead open to double figures. With a minute and a half to play, Ipswich were seventeen ahead, however, TVC would not lay down, and made three three-point shots in the final ninty seconds, while Ipswich made things more uncomfortable for themselves than necessary with a couple of sloppy possessions that gave the visitors hope.
Ipswich secured a 62-56 win, in front of a packed Copleston crowd – to start the season as well as they could have hoped. Sadly, the game was somewhat overshadowed as young guard Hannah Gray sustained a nasty injury, that could see the GB Junior miss an extended period of time. It is also worth noting that Ipswich are currently without star forward and NCAA Division One commit, Susannah Rafiu, who is also expected to miss several games to start the season – meaning this win was all the more impressive.
Head Coach Nick Drane had this to say after the game “Every game counts at this level, so for us to learn so much about this group and be able to record a win in the process, is great. Ava literally met the girls on Thursday, so to say that we went into this game a little blind would be an understatement”. Drane added “ I thought Cameron was fantastic today as our leader, and the new girls Yassin, Ava and Liv were all fantastic and will only get better. Saruna, Alice and Millie were all part of last season and have clearly developed and are ready to play major roles this season. With Hannah and Susannah both out longer term, it’s up to these ladies to take things forward in the coming weeks”. Drane added “I’m devastated about Hannah. She has a very, very bright future and I know she has a huge character so long term this will not hold her back – but in the short term, we will miss her hugely and I know how frustrated she will be because of this injury”.
Cameron Taylor-Willis finished the game with ten points and a career high seventeen rebounds, while front court partner Yassin Belle-Mbaye added sixteen points and eleven boards. Ava Battese showed off her quality with a game high nineteen points, while Liv Forster’s nine points were massive for the ladies in blue.
Ipswich have their first road trip of the season next Saturday as they travel to the capital to face London Lions II. A second victory for this group so early in the season would be more than many people were expecting given the loss of so many big-name players, and the calibre of players already on the injured list.