FOR Suzy Batkovic, it’s all about the ring, not the bling.
Newcastle’s three-time Olympic medallist is the first player in Women’s National Basketball League history to win three straight Most Valuable Player awards, but as proud as she is of that achievement, it will lose some lustre if the Townsville Fire fall to defending champions Bendigo Spirit in the grand final at Bendigo on Sunday.
‘‘It’s nice to make a little bit of history, that’s for sure, but I want to win a championship. That’s why you play, to try and win a championship for your club and for your teammates and for yourself individually, so I’m pretty hungry to win a championship,’’ Batkovic told the Newcastle Herald yesterday.
– SUZY BATKOVIC
It is an encore of last year’s all-regional grand final, which the Spirit won 71-57, though that Townsville side did not have Batkovic crashing the boards or pouring in points from the paint and the perimeter.
The Fire signed Batkovic from Adelaide in the off-season, hoping the long-time Australian Opals powerhouse would be the missing piece in the puzzle as they pursue their first WNBL title.
Getting better as the season went on, Batkovic led the WNBL in rebounding and blocked shots (46), and her average of 20.3 points a game was second only to her Opals teammate Jenna O’Hea (20.7) from Dandenong Rangers.
Having eliminated Melbourne Boomers the previous week, the Fire beat the Rangers 74-71 in Dandenong last weekend to qualify for the decider.
It was their first victory over Dandenong this season after three losses during the preliminary rounds, creating so much buzz in Townsville they have knocked the North Queensland Cowboys off the back page of the local Townsville Bulletin even though the Cowboys kick off their NRL campaign at home tonight against Canberra.
‘‘There’s been a really good atmosphere all week. The last few weeks have been massive because we’ve had a lot of media and the whole community are right behind us,’’ she said.
‘‘To be honest, we’ve been getting front and back pages up here, even with the Cowboys starting their season, so it’s been pretty amazing.
‘‘We’re all really excited and really looking forward to it. It’s a really good feel, it’s not a nervous feel, so we can’t wait for the game to give it everything we’ve got to try and bring that championship flag home.’’
The Fire were despised outsiders in the grand final last year but Batkovic believed the experience her teammates gained in that game, the team’s overall improvement and their results against the Spirit this season meant they were entitled to fancy their chances tomorrow.
Bendigo’s only two losses all season were against the Fire – 79-67 on opening night in October, and 81-70 in Bendigo on January 18.
The Spirit were last-start 78-57 winners in Townsville on Australia Day but the Fire have since won six straight, including back-to-back sudden-death finals.
‘‘Finals basketball is finals basketball. It’s different to what happened during the regular season,’’ the 33-year-old Newcastle Hunters ambassador said.
‘‘We hadn’t beaten Dandenong until we beat them in the prelim last week, which was pretty awesome, and I believe that’s what happened last year as well.
‘‘We’re in a better position than what this team was in last year. They were genuine underdogs last year and came in and beat Adelaide, who I was playing for, then beat Dandenong to make it to the grand final, but this year I think we’re a bit stronger.
‘‘We’ve been a lot more consistent and people expected us to be in that top four, which we did by finishing third.’’
Batkovic played in Townsville’s first season in the WNBL in 2001-02 but the Fire struggled, as most expansion clubs do, and she remembers little of the experience.
She had won WNBL championships with Sydney the previous season and with the Australian Institute of Sport three years prior.
Though the last of her two WNBL titles came 13 years ago, she has won three European championships and a Euroleague crown in the interim, and reached the grand final with Canberra Capitals three years ago only to lose 103-78 to Bulleen (now Melbourne) Boomers.
Batkovic again expects to be closely marked by several Bendigo defenders, including fellow WNBL All-Star Five selection Gabrielle Richards, but was confident teammates such as Rachael McCully, Steph Cumming, Kayla Standish and Mia Newley would produce as they did against Dandenong last week.
All four scored in double figures as the Rangers held Batkovic to 13 points and 16 rebounds.
‘‘We’ve got great athletes in this team and on any given night, any one of our players can score 25 points,’’ she said.
‘‘I get double or triple-teamed every night, so that’s nothing new for us.’’
The grand final will be telecast live on ABC1 tomorrow at 3pm.
FOCUSED: Suzy Batkovic is fired up to perform for Townsville in tomorrow’s WNBL grand final. Picture: Getty Images