Geraldton Buccaneers hard road back to final as Rockingham Flames eye redemption
The Geraldton Buccaneers are preparing for a shot at their third championship and second in four years as the Rockingham Flames await on Saturday night.
Following their impressive season and dominant performances in their past two finals matches its easy to forget the turbulent period they went through in the past two years.
With the 2019 championship in hand and a strong core, there would have been high hopes of going back-to-back into next year.
“We would have loved to have had a dynasty going, but the last couple of years have been a bit tough,” coach Dayle Joseph said.
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The Buccs were scheduled to open their 2020 season against the Goldfield Giants on March 14 but COVID led to the league indefinitely suspended before it was officially cancelled in May.
The SBL was then transformed into the NBL1 West and in the Buccs had almost a completely different squad.
They had lost imports and regular starters Colter Lasher and Marcus Alipate, Alex Ducas had moved on to college and they were dealt a hammer blow when in the 2020 West Coast Classic competition 2019 MVP Liam Hunt landed awkwardly and suffered a catastrophic injury with doubt about if he could walk again.
All this meant the 2021 team was barely recognisable from the 2019 side with just four players from that championship-winning side running out on the court last year.
It forced the Buccs to play a lot of their youth and they endured a difficult year, winning just six out of 20 games
Matthew Wunderberg is one of two players from that 2019 team and spoke of the challenges it was for the guys.
“We got to play a lot of youth which, on the one hand, was a good thing to get a lot of minutes into those guys but it’s tough when you’re getting blown out by 30 points,” he said.
While they finished on a high beating the Wolves despite missing four main starters the Buccs missed out on finals for the first time since 2012 and just the third time this century.
It was no doubt a horror two years with Joseph admitting they “had to start again”.
And they were certainly busy bringing in several high-profile players from around the different leagues to complement their youth.
Cameron Coleman was one of the first signed on and one of the biggest stars having won the NBL1 Central Defensive Player of the Year, while they also secured Ryan Blanchett from the Suns.
Malik Menuir was recruited from the Knox Raiders in the NBL1 south and Fletcher Klasztorny was brought over from the Goldfield Giants.
Mathiang Muo was re-signed after an impressive debut season in which he averaged 23.1 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists.
The final piece was added with the signing of US Shaun Stewart, who was originally slated to join in 2020 before leaving the State when the borders closed.
It was an impressive squad with a wealth of talent boosted by Liam Hunt’s remarkable return from injury after enduring painstaking surgery and learning to walk again.
The impact of the signings was immediate, with Coleman and Stewart both dropping 20 points plus in their debut match as they won their first 10 games of the season in a remarkable start.
Stewart was averaging 25 points a game across the first five games as Coleman, Muo, Meunier and Wunderberg formed an elite starting squad.
From averaging just more than 70 points last season they went to above 90, assists improved from below 15 to more than 20, as rebounds also improved by nearly plus 10.
Last year’s squad of youngsters is now a team with depth and players like Johny Narkle or Hunt can post huge numbers from the bench or cover when there’s been an injury.
Wunderberg was full of praise for the work done in the off-season to turn their trajectory around.
“It’s a credit to our program and our juniors and we’ve recruited really well in the off-season,” he said.
“The difference from last year to now being in that winning environment and the professionalism that the recruits have shown has raised the level of the squad as a whole.”
Joseph believes last year’s trials have helped them be a better team this year.
“The younger guys who got some game time last year might have dropped down the list with some of the recruits we brought in,” he said.
“But what that means is their competitiveness at training has been high and they’ve been putting pressure on the guys above them to keep their spots and propelled us forward as a club.”
There have been hiccups — they lost their first game in round nine against the Cougars with a late fightback falling short after a horrid second quarter.
A loss to the Redbacks showed them struggle defensively. Against the Perry Lake Hawks they struggled on the offensive end with a woeful shooting percentage in the 30s.
However, since that loss the Buccs have reached another level with no team being able to match them. The smallest winning margin was 15 points and they claimed the minor premiership for the first time since 2014.
They have blown out their last three games by more than 30 points and Wunderberg believes there is still more to find.
“We haven’t played the perfect game by any means but we have been building every single week,” he said.
“But we’re definitely growing in confidence and I think are better placed than we were in 2019.”
They may need to lift that extra level against the Rockingham Flames, who boast some excellent talent in their line-up.
The Flames booked their place in a second straight NBL1 West Grand Final by defeating the Warwick Senators 85-74 last Saturday and boast a line-up loaded with talent.
They finished with a 20-4 record and average the highest points a game for any team this season at a tick over 97. They average more than 46 rebounds a game, two more than the Buccs.
However, the Buccs got the better of them in their only previous meeting this season in a two-point thriller.
On that occasion Coleman, Stewart and Narkle combined to overcome a huge solo effort from Devondrick Walker, who dropped 37 points to almost single-handedly drag the Flames over the line.
Stopping Walker will be key to the outcome of the final as the former Wildcat and league MVP averages about 27 points a game and is lethal from the three-point line, draining more than 100 long bombs at above 45 per cent.
The task will surely lie with the league’s defensive player of the year Coleman, who has been outstanding at both ends of the court.
But the Flames have weapons outside of Walker as Wildcat legend Greg Hire looks to retire on a high after the Flames fell just short last year.
While he may not post huge numbers like Walker, his experience and ability to marshal the team may be just as valuable in the high-pressure environment of a final.
There is no understating the challenge the Flames pose, but the Buccs have some aces up their sleeves as well.
Wunderberg and Hunt are still there from 2019, they know what it takes to win championships and that could be vital when the going gets tough.
“I hope it will help and that hunger from the other guys can really push us over the line,” Joseph said.
The key for the Buccs all year has been the squad as a whole. While no players top the key stats for the league — only Coleman is in the top five for points and steals — they finished with the best record of the season and you if shut down one you leave another guy open.
Often stats go out the window in finals and it is just about who can handle the pressure and have the mental toughness.
Liam Hunt had simple words of advice for his teammates on how best to go about it.
“Just go out there and enjoy it because its bloody awesome,” he said.
It has been a long road back to the top but if they can overcome one last hurdle on Saturday it would put the cherry on top of a remarkable turnaround.
The final will take place at 7pm on Saturday and will be televised via the NBL1 website or on Kayo Sports.
The Guardian will also be doing a live blog of the game which can be followed via our website.
Geraldton Buccaneers 2 (2000, 2019) Rockingham Flames 0
Geraldton Buccaneers 21-3 Rockingham Flames 20-3
Points per game 93.58 Points Per Game 97.04
Rebounds per game 44.63 Rebounds Per Game 46.63
Assist per game 20.25 Assits Per Game 18.33
Cameron Coleman v Devondrick Walker
NBL1 West Defensive Player of the Year v NBL1 West MVP
PPG 21.70 PPG 27.00
APG 2.70 APG 3.78
RPG 6.39 RPG 5.78
FGP 56.84 FGP 50.12
Predicted starting line-up
Geraldton Buccaneers Rockingham Flames
Shaun Stewart Ryan Godfrey
Malik Meunier Justin Beard
Mathiang Muo Travis Durnin
Cameron Coleman Tom Jervis
Matthew Wundenberg Devondrick Walker
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