By Colin MacGillivray
THE call is out for all basketball fans from Wallan and beyond to cheer on Wallan Panthers as three of their four Big V teams kick off finals campaigns this weekend.
Wallan’s senior division two men’s and women’s teams, as well as its youth league division two women, will play elimination finals after finishing in the top six, while the youth league division two men failed to qualify despite an impressive 107-102 overtime win against Chelsea on Saturday.
The Panthers’ men will play an away final against Sherbrooke, while the women and youth league women will be at home to Gippsland United and Whittlesea respectively on Saturday night.
Wallan president Tracy Connors commended the effort of all teams and encouraged residents to create a strong home-court atmosphere for the women’s teams.
“All four of our teams should be commended. They’ve done really well coming out of COVID into their first full season back together,” she said.
“Just being able to live and breathe a full competition again is really important. It’s great that we can bring two finals games home to our fans to see our women’s teams perform at home.
“It’s encouraging that all four teams have put in a good show, some having challenges along the way with player injuries and player numbers. It’s just been a great result for the year.
“We want all of our fans to come along and support our women at their home game. We wish them all the success as we push into the finals.”
The division two men enter the finals on a high after a tough 76-72 road win against Mildura in round 18.
Coach Tim Annett said it was a good tune-up before facing Sherbrooke.
“It was frustrating that we got up early and allowed them to get back into the game, but to the guys’ credit we knuckled down in the fourth and made sure we got the win to take some momentum into next week,” he said.
Encouragingly, captain Jordan Hockley played his best game of the season with 26 points after sitting out the bulk of the year with a hip injury.
With import Arcaim Lallemand finishing in the division’s top five in points and rebounds per game and guard Abraham Solano emerging as one of the premier three-point marksmen of the competition, Hockley could represent a secret weapon.
Annett said the team was feeling good about a third meeting with Sherbrooke after losing narrowly to the Suns twice this season.
“We’ve had two really close games with them. We lost by six in round one and then took them to double overtime the second time we played them. I think they suit the way we play, so it’s probably the best match-up we could get,” he said.
Women’s coach optimistic
Women’s coach Carey Papanicolaou was also optimistic about his team’s chances after dispatching Coburg 75-62 in the final round of the season.
Papanicolaou said the season had been difficult at times as the Panthers endured injuries and player unavailability, but said the players’ commitment never wavered.
“It’s been a good effort by the girls to make it this far. We’ve had interruptions and injuries, so they’ve done really well to get a finals spot, and it’s nice for them to get rewarded for their effort,” he said.
Sarah Scott led the Panthers with 23 points against Coburg but Papanicolaou said it had been a team effort – one which they would need to replicate in the finals.
Youth league women’s coach Ben Whyte was delighted for his side, which will make its finals debut in only its second Big V season.
The Panthers lost 49-62 against minor premier Bellarine at the weekend but showed glimpses of play that Whyte said could stack up against any side.
“We started off really well and brought the energy and intensity that we knew we needed to play with to beat them.
“In the second and third quarters we allowed them to dictate the game and the tempo and we were unable to wrestle that back off them until the fourth quarter, which we won.
“It gave us a lot of positives to take away from the game, and we know that they’re not unbeatable if we play our brand for 40 minutes.”
Whyte said he hoped Saturday’s final against Whittlesea was the start of something special for the Panthers.
“We all have the same goal – we want to build and have a winning culture, not only in the youth league team but the women’s program as a whole,” he said.
“We want to continue to get better each and every week, as well as each and every year. For people coming into our program, we want to build that expectation that we’re going to be successful and going to push for titles.”
The youth league women will host Whittlesea at RB Robson Stadium at 6pm on Saturday, with the women playing Gippsland United at 8pm.
The men’s game against Sherbrooke will be at 6pm on Saturday at Upwey High School.