In front of a boisterous home crowd at the La Trobe Sports Park Stadium, the Eagles held off a gallant University of Sydney outfit in a thrilling UBL Women’s Grand Final, 61-54.
The title victory was a fitting reward for the La Trobe team, which had dominated the nation-wide UBL competition in 2022 and remained undefeated through all 12 of their matches this season.
As inaugural UBL national champions, La Trobe’s Women’s team has now earned the right to travel to Taiwan later this year to represent UniSport Australia in a worldwide basketball exhibition against a variety of Chinese Tapei universities.
After a flying start that saw La Trobe score the first 10 points of the game, University of Sydney fought back to reduce the margin to six at quarter time. The arm-wrestle continued in the second quarter, with the plucky Sydney Uni outfit managing to restrict the influence of the Eagles’ key playmakers and cut the margin to just one at the half.
Both teams traded blows in the third term with neither able to grab a firm hold on the contest, and with the margin just three points at the final change, the championship title was anyone's for the taking.
But as they have done so often this season, La Trobe was able to find a way to the basket more often than not in the clutch moments to apply the scoreboard pressure to their Sydney rivals. The result remained in the balance until the final 30 seconds of the game, but the Eagles held their nerve to claim a memorable victory.
Bachelor of Exercise Science student and La Trobe Elite Athlete Program (LEAP) member Piper Dunlop (15 rebounds, six points) was instrumental to La Trobe’s victory, coming up with some huge buckets in the dying minutes of the game to underline her status as a star of the UBL competition, while fellow Bendigo Campus student Meg McCarthy (Bachelor of Occupational Therapy) also played a fine all-round game with 10 points, 10 rebounds and four assists.
Eilish Feehan (Bachelor of Occupational Therapy) and Kiara Mountford (Bachelor of Criminology) were also stand-out contributors for La Trobe, leading the scoring with 16 and 12 points respectively, with Feehan also contributing 10 rebounds.
After leading the La Trobe Women’s team during the UBL foundation season in 2021 which was cancelled pre-finals due to COVID, Eagles’ captain Jayde Kirk described her group's achievement in the competition's first full year as the "dream season".
"I can't really put it into words, I'm extremely overwhelmed," Kirk said.
"It (the UBL) is a different experience for all of us compared to playing club basketball, but it has been a great experience traveling all over Australia to play basketball. It has made us a tight-knit group.
"We understood the (Grand Final) game wasn't going to be given to us, we had to work for it for the whole four quarters, so we're just glad we got it done."
For Bendigo Spirit Women's National Basketball League (WNBL) representative Piper Dunlop, winning the national UBL championship with her fellow La Trobe classmates ranks as one of the finest achievements of her already impressive career.
"It ranks high up there - I'm a huge one for 'Basketball is family', and that is what this team is to me," Dunlop said.
"It's amazing to think you can build such close connections with people at La Trobe in a team rather than in a classroom setting.
"I couldn't ask for a better group of girls to do it with. The whole (UBL) experience was amazing. We stuck together through thick and thin and I'm so happy that we pulled it off."
After going through the season undefeated, La Trobe Women’s team coach Cameron Wilkosz said his side's Grand Final victory was the just reward for their extraordinary campaign.
"I can't say I'm disappointed with it - it (the Grand Final win) is probably a good reflection of what the girls have put forward every game, so to be the champions is about where we deserve to be," Wilkosz said.
"We knew they (University of Sydney) were going to come; we were up 8-0 in the first quarter and they called a timeout, so we knew they were going to come at us. Being only one point up with seven minutes to go we knew it was going to be tight down the stretch, but we had some clutch free-throws at the end and three people have had double doubles.
"It's not one person on our team you have to lock down to stop us - you have to stop all 10 of us, which is an awesome trait to have."
Despite the undefeated season, Wilkosz admitted the season still had its degree of challenges from a coaching perspective managing players from different campuses and varying skills levels, but ultimately the group's connection and spirit were the key factors to its success.
"Piper (Dunlop) plays WNBL, a couple play NBL1, a couple play Big V, some don't even play basketball and half of us (Wilkosz included) are from Bendigo, so it's a tough challenge at times," Wilkosz said.
"But this group are seriously a great bunch of friends. They come together to play basketball on a Tuesday afternoon and when basketball is fun, it's a lot easier to coach and play. When we go away on interstate trips, we have to hem the fun a little bit, but it's a lot easier to coach when they all enjoy each other's company."
The Women’s UBL championship caps off what has been an excellent first full UBL season for the La Trobe University UBL program. While not achieving the dizzying heights of their female Eagles counterparts, the Men’s squad also reached the UBL finals before going down against the University of Sydney in the Semi-Final last week.
To watch relive the Women’s UBL Grand Final triumph, visit the UniSport TV website for full replays and match highlights.