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WNBL season preview: University of Canberra Capitals

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9th November, 2020
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The WNBL season tips off on Wednesday, with the season running for a six-week period from a hub in North Queensland. Matches will be played in Cairns, Mackay and Townsville.

Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, there will be no imports in the hub.

Last season’s imports included the Canadian WNBA All-Star Kia Nurse, the ‘French Burglar’ Olivia Epoupa, who had already announced that they were not returning, and Las Vegas Aces guard Lindsay Allen. The Phoenix Mercury’s Sophie Cunningham and Brianna Turner, and now two-time WNBA champion Seattle Storm’s Mercedes Russell, also strutted their stuff in Australia.

Whilst there will be no imports, the pandemic has seen Opals star Liz Cambage returning from overseas.

No imports playing and the extension of squad numbers from ten to 12 due to the condensed season will ensure extra contracts and exposure for young Australian players.

This makes me think of Super Netball, where squads were extended from ten to 12. If this change had not happened, we may not have seen the skills of players like Georgie Horjus, Elle McDonald and Sunday Aryang.

The condensed year will also test coaches, who will have to utilise their benches more during than they normally would.

The WNBL has announced a broadcast deal that is unprecedented for the competition.

All 60 games will be broadcast on either Foxtel, Kayo or the ABC.

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Fox Sports will live-broadcast four games per week (7pm EDT Thursday, 5pm EDT Saturday, 1pm EDT Sunday and 3pm EDT Sunday) on Foxtel and Kayo, while the ABC will broadcast the 5pm EDT Saturday game and 3pm EDT Sunday games.

All matches will be streamed on Kayo.

It is good to see it return to ABC TV which broadcasted the WNBL from 1981 to the 2014/2015 season before budget cuts meant the ABC was unable to continue.

University of Canberra Capitals
Last season: Winner

The two-time defending champions are looking to become the first team to three-peat since the Adelaide Lightning in 1996. The champions have lost their imports Kia Nurse and Olivia Epoupa, but they still retain the core of their championship side and have recruited astutely to fill the gaps.

Anyone who writes the Capitals off does so at their own peril. Early last season a number of critics prematurely wrote off the Capitals when they lost two games in the same weekend.

Co-captain Kelsey Griffin has been a star of the WNBL since 2012 and doesn’t mind picking up an MVP award.

Griffin was awarded the Most Valuable Player at the Asia Cup in 2017 and won two WNBL Championships at the Bendigo Spirit – winning the grand final MVP on both occasions. She also won the WNBL MVP and grand final MVP for the Capitals in 2018-2019. When you watch her it feels like she puts the team on her back and carries them to victory.

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Co-captain Marianna Tolo has been a mainstay of both the Opals and Capitals. She brings quality, experience and consistency to the team.

Tolo has won four WNBL titles with the Capitals, has experience playing in France and the WNBA, and has won the Capitals Players’ Player two years in a row.

Tolo’s presence in the defensive key will often make her opposition change their planned course of attack. Her battles with the likes of Cambage and Cayla George will be great to watch.

Keely Froling enters her fifth season with the Capitals. Last season, Froling played a bigger role when Griffin was sidelined with an injury.

In a match against the Bendigo Spirit, Froling scored 30 points and took ten rebounds. Throughout the season she averaged 12.2 points and 6.9 rebounds per game, while also showing her tenacity and determination by playing through a game with a fractured cheek and nose.

Froling has represented Australia’s 3×3 team and will be hoping to help them qualify for the Olympics.

Coming from the ultimate basketball family, her mother Jenny won four WNBL championships and earlier this year was awarded WNBL life membership. Her father Shane was a constant in the NBL in the late 1980s and 1990s. The 24-year-old’s brothers Harry and Sam have also played in the NBL, while twin sister Alicia will be playing for the Bendigo Spirit.

Maddison Rocci’s game has continued to develop while playing with the likes of Kia Nurse and Olivia Epoupa. She has previously played for the Australian Sapphires (Under 17s) and Gems (Under 19s).

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The Capitals signed the 22-year-old following impressive showings for the Centre of Excellence in the SEABL and was recently named in Sandy Brondello’s extended Opals squad.

Rocci received the Capital on the Rise award for the 2018/2019 season and during the 2019-2020 season, averaging nine points per game, 2.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists. Watch for Rocci to step up to fill some of the void left by Nurse and Epoupa.

21-year-old Abby Cubillo will play her third season with the Capitals. Born and raised in the Northern Territory, Cubillo was the starting point guard for the Australian Sapphires when the Sapphires won gold at the 2016 Under 17 World Championships.

She also spent two years at the Australian Institute of Sport and was awarded the Capital on the Rise award at the end of last season.

Forward Alex Delaney in her first season in Canberra was able to help the team win their second championship in a row. Delaney has previously played for the Sydney Uni Flames and also had a stint in the USA with St Francis Brooklyn Women’s Basketball.

Prior to joining the Capitals last season, Delaney played with Mackay in the Queensland Basketball League and has a strong work ethic and excellent passing game.

Mikaela Ruef has re-signed with the Capitals for the next two seasons after securing permanent residency.

Ruef was hoping to play for the Capitals last season and trained with the team, however, due to delays in her immigration paperwork, she was unable to play. Ruef adds depth to the front-court, is a terrific rebounder and will be an important addition to the team in a condensed season.

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Capitals’ luring of Brittany Smart is one of the great pieces of recruiting they have done to try and fill the gaps left by Nurse and Epoupa.

Smart joins the Capitals after two seasons with the Sydney Uni Flames and brings with her great experience having previously played with the Melbourne Boomers while also having stints in Belgium and Sweden. Watch for her to hurt the opposition from beyond the arc.

Another former Flame guard to head to the nation’s capital is Tahlia Tupaea. Tuapaea debuted for the Flames as a 15-year-old and is a former Australian Gems junior representative.

Tuapaea is a tenacious player. Drafted by the Minnesota Lynx in the 2017 WNBA draft, she has had a disrupted WNBL career thus far with injuries and concussions hampering her. Hopefully for Tuapaea, Capitals and basketball fans, she is able to stay fit this season.

The Capitals have signed former Adelaide Lightning guard Hannah Kaser. Kaser had a stint at St Mary’s College in California and has also played for the Canberra Nationals Waratah League team.

Guard Jade Melbourne will be attending the University of Arizona State next year. Melbourne was part of the bronze-medal-winning Australian Under 17 team at the 2018 World Cup and has previously spent time with the Melbourne Boomers.

Ashley Taia has recently been playing for Logan Thunder with Mikaela Ruef in the Queensland State League, averaging just under 12 points, five rebounds and three assists per game. Taia also had a stint with the Adelaide Lightning in 2018/2019.

Not only have the Capitals lost Nurse and Epoupa but they have also lost Gemma Potter after an application to the NCAA to approve Potter playing for the Capitals was denied.

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Prediction
With the Capitals being led by stars Griffin and Tolo, you would expect them to return to the semi-finals. Despite the growth of Rocci and the recruitment of Smart and Tuapaea, the loss of Nurse and Epoupa will hurt them in the big moments and see them fall a couple of steps short of a threepeat.

Predicted finish: Third

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