Ahead of their grand final series with the Adelaide Lightning, University of Canberra Capitals guard Leilani Mitchell caught up with The CEO Magazine.
After a spectacular off-season recruitment drive which saw them net Connecticut alum Kia Nurse, two-time WNBL MVP Kelsey Griffin, three-time champion Kelly Wilson and Olympian Leilani Mitchell, expectations were high that the University of Canberra Capitals would return to their championship-winning glory days this season.
No basketball game has ever been won on paper though, and at the season launch, Marianna Tolo shied away from the favourites tag and felt that teams with greater continuity would be hard to beat.
While the wins came early, the Capitals took some time to fully click into gear and get their full team back on court.
Be there as we fight to claim the first win of the grand final series against the Adelaide Lightning this Saturday, 9 Feb 5:30pm at the AIS Arena.
— UC Capitals (@UCCapitals) February 4, 2019
Capitals took some time to gel, but their offence is now humming
“It was frustrating for me,” Mitchell says of the early weeks of the season, where she was restricted to just 30 minutes of training while recovering from a plantar fasciitis issue.
“I couldn’t really get in and build a rhythm and flow. I hadn’t played with a lot of the girls before and I was trying to find out where I fitted in and how we would gel and get that chemistry.”
Mitchell returned to full training capacity in mid-December and was slowly reintroduced into the team, initially playing spot minutes off the bench before moving back into the starting lineup and slowly starting to look her old self.
“I’ve got in better basketball shape and our chemistry has really grown since then, especially since we added in (Marianna) Tolo. Things are going well at the moment.”
‘Going well’ may understate the scintillating recent form of Mitchell and her team.
In the semi-final victory over Perth, Mitchell again looked every inch the ice-blooded floor general that has been such a dominant force in the WNBL. She took full advantage of the Capitals’ well-spaced offence to rain down 11 three-pointers from 16 (69%) for the series.
The team as a whole also looked like an offensive juggernaut. In game one, they tallied an incredible 29 assists on 34 field goals, a testament to an unselfish, fluent offence.
An in-form Adelaide Lightning await the Capitals in the grand final
Grand final opponents, Adelaide Lightning will be formidable, however, having won 14 of their last 18 games on a Cinderella run to the big game.
Mitchell’s opposing point guard Nicole Seekamp looms as a pivotal player in the series.
“She can do a lot of things,” Mitchell says of Seekamp. “She does a great job scoring but also in getting her teammates involved. She’s a big, strong guard and she likes to post up and drive to the basket, so we’ll just have to limit her touches and try to keep her out of the paint.”
Lightning big Nia Coffey has also been all but unstoppable at times and Kayla Alexander, Lauren Nicholson and Steph Blicavs round out a strong starting five.
Against the Melbourne Boomers, Lightning’s bench players were also influential, with a smaller but speedy lineup featuring substitutes Aimie Clydesdale and Colleen Planeta being instrumental in the fourth-quarter run that sealed game one.
“The (bench players) were a good boost for them in the last series,” Mitchell says. “We need to make sure their role players don’t come in and have a big impact.”
— UC Capitals (@UCCapitals) October 31, 2018
“This is a job, but it’s also a dream”
Ticket sales for the first grand final have been strong and Mitchell says she has noticed an uptick in interest in the WNBL.
“The marketing has been great this season,” she says.
“The WNBL is making sure we’re out in the community, doing service. We’re making sure people, young girls especially, know that (playing basketball professionally) is a job, but it’s also a dream they can follow and make a reality if they want it.”
Sportspeople love to trot out the old line about grand finals being ‘just another game’, but Mitchell isn’t having any of that cliche. “It is more exciting,” she says. “These are the moments we play for as athletes”.
The WNBL grand final series begins at 5:30PM local time on 9 February at the AIS Arena, Canberra.
Image credit: UC Capitals