On Thursday 17th March JCU Townsville Fire centre Suzy Batkovic won the 2015/16 WNBL Most Valuable Player Award, becoming just the second player in the 35 seasons of the award to win the league’s highest individual honour four times, following Australian Opals team-mate Lauren Jackson. Batkovic is the only player to win three consecutive WNBL MVP awards, having won her first three awards from 2011/12 to 2013/14, the first two playing for the Adelaide Lightning and the last one playing for current team, the Townsville Fire. In the only season of the last five that Batkovic didn’t win the MVP award she finished third in 2014/15. It is the third time that a Townsville Fire player has won the WNBL MVP award with the previous winner being forward, Rohanee Cox in 2008/09.
Batkovic has had much to celebrate in the past fortnight, being named in the WNBL All-Star five for the fifth time in her career, winning the regular season WNBL MVP award, and celebrating her 100th game with the Townsville Fire on Friday 18th March in the best possible fashion with the club winning game 2 of their Grand Final series against Perth to win the 2015/16 WNBL Championship, making it back to back titles for Townsville and the first time that Batkovic has won the MVP award and played on the championship winning team in the same season. Last night Batkovic added to her burgeoning collection of awards, winning the James Cook University (JCU) Townsville Fire’s MVP for the third consecutive season.
The 2015/16 WNBL MVP Award was one of the closest in recent seasons with Batkovic polling 120 votes to win by four votes from Sydney Uni Flames shooting guard Katie-Rae Ebzery, the duo are Australian Opals team-mates and both grew up in Newcastle with their junior association being the Newcastle Hunters. Batkovic and Ebzery’s 2015/16 WNBL All-Star five team-mates completed the top five of the MVP award with Perth shooting guard Sami Whitcomb finishing third on 106 votes, Bendigo Spirit forward Kelsey Griffen fourth with 89 votes and Adelaide Lightning point guard Leilani Mitchell fifth with 85 votes.
After receiving the WNBL MVP award Suzy commented in a video on the WNBL’s You Tube channel “Yeah, still a bit taken aback but also pretty excited. Yeah, just surprised I guess.” Despite all that she has achieved in her illustrious career Batkovic still remains humble and very appreciative of the assistance she has received from others throughout her career, saying “Yeah I guess I do have a laugh every so often, I started playing at such a late age, going to the AIS (Australian Institute of Sport) and still learning the rules and what a five man weave was. Having to giggle at times because poor Phil Brown (AIS head-coach), had to put up with me and having to teach me so much more than probably what he bargained for, and keep going to get a scholarship so I am very thankful for a lot of people that have put the time and effort into me and helped me along the way. Without that I probably wouldn’t be where I am today.” Batkovic went on to comment about her team, Townsville “Without my team-mates there is no way I would be getting some of the shots I get, and some people set some amazing screens, defensively we help each other so this is definitely a team sport and as much as there are those individual awards which are great you can’t ever do it without your team.”
Early in the 2015/16 WNBL season left-hander Batkvoic stamped her dominance on the league, winning the player of the month award in the opening month of the season, October, and added another player of the month award in December. By the time the WNBL had their mid-season break over Christmas Batkovic had been named in the team of the week six times in 11 rounds. Batkovic turned 35 years old on 17 December 2015, just before the mid-season break and continued to excel in the second half of the season. At the end of the regular season Batkovic ranked in the top 10 of the WNBL in three categories, points (1st), blocked shots (3rd), and rebounds (7th) and had been named in the WNBL’s team of the week eight times. Suzy played all 24 regular season games for the JCU Townsville Fire and averaged 20.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.3 blocked shots per game.
Batkovic was named the WNBL’s player of the week for Round 2 after an outstanding game against the Canberra Capitals in a 104 to 60 win, scoring 30 points from just 24 minutes and 40 seconds court-time, and also had six rebounds, two steals, two assists and one blocked shot. Suzy shot the ball superbly, making 12 of 17 field goals for an accuracy of 70.6%, made her only three point shot and was successful with five of her six free-throw attempts.
During the 2015/16 season only six players in the league averaged more than 17.0 points per game, the members of the 2015/16 WNBL All-Star five along with import Jordan Hooper who joined the SEQ half-way through the season. Displaying remarkable consistency Batkovic scored 16 points or more 14 times in 15 games from Round 4 until Round 14, including six games with more than 24 points.
After two outstanding performances in Round 7 Batkovic won the WNBL’s player of the week award for the second time this season. In a three point win against the SEQ Stars on the road on 20th November Batkovic was instrumental in the hard-fought victory, scoring 30 points, 15 more than the second ranked Townsville player, took seven rebounds, blocked a shot and made two steals. Suzy’s shooting was a highlight again, making 12 of her 18 field goal attempts at 66.7% and six of her seven free-throw attempts. In the second game of the road-double on 22nd November, an 18 point victory against the University of Canberra Capitals Batkovic scored 23 points in 26 minutes, 25 seconds court-time, making nine of her 16 field goal attempts, made four steals, two more than the second ranked player, took seven rebounds and had three assists.
Against the Sydney Uni Flames on the road in Round 10 Batkovic was phenomenal, scoring 32 points, 18 more than the second ranked player in the game took a game-high 14 rebounds, had four assists and four steals. As well as playing a high quality all-round game Batkovic also delivered for her team at the most critical stage, with Townsville trailing by two points late in the fourth quarter Batkovic made a jump-shot from the top of the key to send the game to overtime. Townsville prevailed in overtime to win a nail-biter 79 points to 78.
On 24th January against the University of Canberra Capitals at Townsville RSL Stadium Batkovic scored a season-high 37 points, making 16 of 25 field goal attempts for an accuracy of 64%, had three assists and two steals in the 14 point win.
Townsville finished the 2015/16 regular season on top of the ladder with 17 wins and seven losses to win their second successive minor premiership. Perth finished in second place with 16 wins and Dandenong and SEQ finished in third and fourth place respectively, each with 15 wins and nine losses. It was the most even regular season since 2005/06 when the top three teams all finished with a record of 14 wins and seven losses. In nine seasons from 2006/07 to 2014/15 the most losses that a minor premier finished the season with was five, being Sydney in 2006/07 and Townsville in 2014/15. Whilst Townsville were the reigning WNBL champions there had been several changes to the club’s roster between the 2014/15 and 2015/16 seasons, the most critical departures were two guards, the retirement of captain, Rachel McCully and Stephanie Cumming leaving to re-join her former club, the Dandenong Jayco Rangers. The duos replacements for 2015/16 were imports, Natalie Novosel and Tamara Tatham. Core players from Townsville’s 2014/15 line-up that returned in 2015/16 were Batkovic, Cayla George, Mia Murray and Micaela Cocks. In late January 2016 starter Tatham was ruled out for the remainder of the season due to a left shin fracture. Townsville were unable to recruit another player as the window to bring in a replacement player had passed.
Townsville hosted the major semi-final against Perth and were outplayed in the first half to trail 38-53 at half-time, whilst it was closer in the second half Perth recorded a comfortable 19 point victory 91 points to 72. Townsville lost the rebound count 34-42 and also committed 13 turnovers to Perth’s seven which were major factors in Townsville only having 61 field goal attempts to Perth’s 78. Perth shot the ball superbly from behind the three-point line with three players, Sami Whitcomb, Carley Mijovic and Tessa Lavey shooting a combined 13 of 27 from behind the arc.
In the preliminary final Townsville hosted the SEQ Stars who had a tumultuous season, being placed in administration on Wednesday 3rd February, just two days before they were scheduled to start their Round 16 road-double against Adelaide and Perth. Due to support from sponsors, Logan Council and Basketball Australia the SEQ Stars were able to play out the remainder of the season and had momentum at the right time of the season, winning four of their last five regular season games and defeated the Dandenong Rangers by four points in the minor semi-final after trailing by 15 points late in the second quarter. SEQ went into the preliminary final confident, having defeated Townsville twice during the season, by 20 points and 10 points and were narrowly defeated in the first encounter between the two clubs by three points. One of Townsville’s greatest strengths was their twin towers in the front-court, Suzy Batkovic and Cayla George. SEQ’s strategy during the regular season was to play a different game-style than Townsville, maintaining a faster pace and using their athletic roster to full effect. In the three regular season games against SEQ Batkovic scored in order 32, 30 and 26 points, however in the second and third games Townsville still lost by more than nine points. Batkovic maintained a similar level of output in the preliminary final, scoring 31 points on 11 of 18 field goal attempts, took 10 rebounds and made three assists. With several other players making key contributions including Cayla George with 16 rebounds, Mia Newley with 24 points and Micaela Cocks with eight assists Townsville easily defeated SEQ by 19 points 91 to 72.
In the first ever best of three WNBL Grand Final series Townsville played Perth, the two clubs had split their four encounters to that point of the season and each team had recorded a win on the road. Due to their major semi-final victory Perth had home court advantage and hosted game 1 (and game 3 if required) whilst Townsville hosted game 2.
The first half of game 1 of the Grand Final at Bendat Basketball Centre was close, with one side gaining the ascendancy only for their opponent to respond and swing momentum back the other way. At half-time Townsville led 38-34 however Perth dominated the final seven minutes of the third quarter to go on a 16-3 run and lead by five points at three quarter-time. In the first two and a half minutes of the final quarter veteran Townsville Fire forward Cherie Gallagher scored eight of Townsville’s 10 points to give her club a one point lead. From that point on Townsville dominated, restricting Perth to three points whilst scoring 18 points themselves to record a convincing victory 73 points to 57 after outscoring Perth 28 points to seven in the final quarter. Just like in the semi-final Perth had more field goal attempts than Townsville in game 1 of the Grand Final, however their advantage in this category was reduced to seven, 67 to 60. Townsville shot the ball from the field at 36%, however were able to restrict Perth to only 28% field goal accuracy. Whitcomb, Mijovic and Lavey were unable to match their three point potency of the semi-final and were a combined 7 of 25 for three-pointers in game 1 of the Grand Final. On the biggest stage Batkovic delivered a high standard well rounded game, scoring a game-high 25 points, took nine rebounds and had four assists, one less than Micaela Cocks’ game-high five.
After receiving the 2015/16 WNBL MVP award he day before game 2 of the Grand Final series Batkovic commented on the award “I think they are great, it is an amazing award, I am thankful that I won it, but right now because we have a final on Friday I haven’t really thought about it too much. As much as I love the award and it definitely is an honour, at the moment my focus is solely on trying to get a back to back championship for Townsville.”
Game 2 of the Grand Final series followed a similar pattern to game 1 with Townsville leading at half-time by nine points only for Perth to dominate the third quarter to gain the ascendancy and hold a four point lead at three-quarter time. In the final quarter Perth again proved to be no match for Townsville with the Fire dominating the final term 25-9 to record a 10 point victory 80 points to 70 to win the 2015/16 WNBL title and make it back to back championships. In game 2 Suzy scored 16 points, took a season-high 16 rebounds, blocked two shots and made two assists. Batkovic’s team-mate, New Zealand guard Micaela Cocks won the Grand Final MVP award, averaging 14 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4 assists per game during the Grand Final series.
Batkovic became only the third player in the past 15 WNBL seasons to win the regular season WNBL MVP award and play on the championship winning team in the same season, with the previous two players to achieve this feat being fellow front-court players and Australian Opals Lauren Jackson & Liz Cambage in 2002/03 and 2010/11 respectively.
During the 2015/16 WNBL season Batkovic played all 28 games for Townsville, averaging 20.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.3 blocked shots and 31.6 minutes per game. Batkovic led Townsville for points, blocked shots and minutes played, ranked second for rebounds behind Cayla George who led the league in this category, third for assists behind Mia Murray and Micaela Cocks and second for steals behind Natalie Novosel. Batkovic scored at least 17 points 21 times, and took more than six rebounds in 21 games.
After her first three seasons in the WNBL no-one would have predicted the heights Batkovic would reach during her basketball career, including representing Australia at three Olympic Games and equalling the record for most WNBL MVP awards won. At 15 years of age Suzy Batkovic made her WNBL debut for the AIS in 1996, due to starting to play basketball at a later age than most of her team-mates Batkovic’s basketball development was behind many of her peers, however she was considered a raw talent. In her first three seasons with the AIS Batkovic played a total of 46 games and averaged 3.1 points, 2.0 rebounds and 0.1 assists per game. In her fourth WNBL season in 1998/99 Batkovic blossomed into one of the AIS’s best players and was ranked fourth in the league for field goal accuracy with 51.1%, behind two team-mates, Jackson (54.1%) and Taylor (52.6%), along with Adelaide forward Rachael Sporn (52.8%). Batkovic’s output for points, rebounds and assists in 1998/99 surpassed her total in the three seasons combined from 1996 to 1998 in each of these categories. During 1998/99 Batkovic played 19 games for the AIS, averaging 11.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 0.8 assists per game.
In 1996 the AIS managed only one win from their 18 games and finished last of the 10 teams in the WNBL. Over the next three seasons the AIS steadily rose up the ladder to finish seventh in 1997, fourth in 1998 and on top of the ladder in 1999 with 16 wins, two games clear of Perth in second place. In 1997 and 1998 the AIS gained invaluable finals experience, playing two finals in each season for a win in their first final before being defeated in the club’s second final, a semi-final in 1997 and a preliminary final in 1998. The club continued their progression to defeat Perth 81 points to 62 in the 1998/99 major semi-final to progress to the Grand Final. Although the AIS had clearly been the best team throughout the 1998/99 WNBL season some people questioned how a team of teenagers without Grand Final experience would handle the pressure in the 1998/99 Grand Final against an experienced Perth line-up featuring Jenny Whittle, Telly Bevilaqua, Gina Stevens, Rohanee Cox and Narelle Fletcher. With three minutes remaining in the Grand Final scores were locked at 77 points apiece, the AIS retained their composure to play brilliant basketball in the dying minutes to defeat Perth by nine points 88-79 and win the WNBL Championship. The 1998/99 AIS team contained several players that would become stars in the WNBL and regulars for the Jayco Opals Australian Women’s team, with Batkovic’s AIS team-mates including Lauren Jackson, Penny Taylor, Kristen Veal, Deanna Smith, and Belinda Snell, all six of these players including Batkovic would each go on to be selected in at least one WNBL All-Star five, with Jackson being selected in this team and winning the WNBL MVP in the AIS’s 1998/99 championship winning season. Highlighting how dominant the players from the AIS class of 1998/99 have been, between them they have won more than half of the WNBL MVP awards in the 18 seasons from 1998/99 to the present, combining for 10 MVP’s comprised of four each for Batkovic and Jackson to be equal first on the WNBL all-time list, and two for Taylor. Making this domination even more impressive, in four seasons 2004/05 and three consecutive seasons from 2006/07 to 2008/09 none of the trio played in the WNBL. Batkovic and Jackson have spent considerable time as team-mates for junior teams representing New South Wales, in the WNBL with the AIS and also for Australia, they have also played against each other many times in the WNBL. On equalling Jackson’s record of four WNBL MVP awards Batkovic commented “I’m just surprised I guess. [Jackson] is obviously one of the best basketballers in the world. Growing up and playing with her in Olympics and WNBL as well as representing NSW, we’ve done a lot together.”1
Batkovic joined the Sydney Panthers for the 1999/2000 season, the distance to the town she grew up in, Newcastle, from Sydney is 159 kilometres. Batkovic was able to learn from two players with vast experience representing the Australian Opals and past WNBL MVP award winners during 1999/00, Robyn Maher and Trish Fallon. Batkovic was again one of the most accurate shooters in the WNBL, ranking third for field goal accuracy, and also ranked third for blocked shots and fourth for rebounds. After finishing sixth on the ladder in 1999/00 Sydney improved to finish second in 2000/01 with 16 wins, one win behind the minor premiers, Canberra. Sydney defeated a Canberra line-up led by Lauren Jackson 69 points to 65 in the Grand Final to win the club’s third championship, having previously won in 1993 and 1997.
In 2001/02 Batkovic joined the Townsville Fire and ranked in the league’s top five in five categories, being rebounds (1st), blocked shots (equal 2nd), points (3rd), field goal accuracy (4th), and steals (5th). Suzy played 21 games for Townsville averaging 20.0 points, 12.2 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 2.1 blocked shots and 1.7 steals to set new career highs in four of these five categories with the exception being assists.
After the 2001/02 season Batkovic spent seven years playing in international league’s commencing with a stint at French club Valencienne and was a part of the team that won the 2004 Euroleague title. During her time abroad Batkovic also played in leagues in Spain, Russia, and Italy and also played for WNBA club Seattle Storm in 2005 and 2009 alongside Australia Opals team-mate Lauren Jackson. In 2006 Batkovic was selected in the Euroleague World All-Star team and in 2009 she was a member of the team that were the Italian A1 champions, Cras Taranto.
In 2001 Batkovic became a regular for the Australian Opals and has gone on to represent her country at a World Championships in 2002 and three Olympic Games in 2004, 2008 and 2012, she has won the Maher medal as Australia’s international women’s player of the year twice, 2001 and 2008. At all four major championships Batkovic has been part of an Opals team that won a medal, winning silver in 2004 and 2008, and bronze in 2002 and 2012. In the 2008 Olympic Games at Beijing Batkovic played all eight games, averaging 11.9 points, 8.9 rebounds, 0.9 assists and 21.6 minutes per game to lead the Opals for rebounds per game, rank second for points, fifth for steals and fifth for minutes per game behind Kristi Harrower, Lauren Jackson, Belinda Snell and Penny Taylor, with the latter three all being team-mates from the AIS’ WNBL Championship winning team in 1999.
Batkovic played all eight games for Australia at the 2012 Olympic Games in London and averaged 11.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 21.9 minutes per game. Suzy led the Opals for steals, ranked third for points, second for rebounds and third for blocked shots.
After not playing in the WNBL for seven seasons from 2002/03 to 2008/09 Batkovic returned in 2009/10 playing for Sydney and led the league in scoring, averaging 24.6 points per game, ranked second for steals, equal second for blocked shots, fifth for rebounds and was selected in the WNBL All-Star five for the first time.
Batkovic’s 2010/11 season with Canberra was hampered by injuries to her back and an infected elbow, being restricted to 13 of a possible 25 games and having her court-time managed in other games Batkovic averaged 15.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 24.1 minutes per game.
During 2011/12 and 2012/13 playing for the Adelaide Lightning Batkovic was the premier player in the WNBL winning the MVP award in both seasons, playing 40 games and averaging 22.7 points and 10.1 rebounds per game during this period. In 2011/12 Suzy led the league in scoring, rebounds and steals, ranked fourth for field goal accuracy and fifth for blocked shots. During 2012/13 Batkovic led the WNBL in three categories, points, rebounds and blocked shots. Over these two seasons Adelaide had a brilliant regular season record of 36 wins and ten losses to finish first on the ladder in 2011/12 and third in 2012/13, however they did not have the same level of success during the finals, losing all three finals.
For the past three seasons from 2013/14 to 2015/16 Batkovic has played for the Townsville Fire and in each season the club has made the Grand Final and Batkovic has finished in the top three of the MVP award. After Townsville were defeated by Bendigo 94 points to 83 in 2013/14 Townsville have been able to replicate Bendigo’s feat in winning back to back WNBL Championships. During the 2013/14 regular-season Batkovic led the WNBL in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots. Although Abby Bishop surpassed her as the best player in the WNBL for the 2014/15 season Batkovic won her third WNBL Championship in 2014/15 playing for Townsville and remained one of the best players in the league, ranking third for points per game behind Bishop and Penny Taylor, second for rebounds and steals and fourth for blocked shots.
In recent seasons Batkovic has had to manage some back injuries which has prevented her from playing all-year round and led to a decision to make herself unavailable to represent Australia for an extended period including the 2014 World Championships to enable her body and in particular her back to recover. The Australian Opals 2014 World Championship team only included one player that ranked in the top six for minutes played for Australia at the 2012 Olympic games – Belinda Snell, with the remaining five players missing the 2014 World Championships for various reasons, retirement – Kristi Harrower, injury – Lauren Jackson and Liz Cambage and unavailability – Suzy Batkovic and Jenna O’Hea. A new look Australian Opals line-up led by captain, Penny Taylor and coached by Brendan Joyce played an up-tempo brand of basketball and displayed superb team-work to win the bronze medal, the ninth time in 10 major championships that the Australian Jayco Opals had won a medal, with the 2010 World Championships being the only exception. When Batkovic returned to represent Australia at the 2015 Oceania Championships against New Zealand many people questioned if Batkovic could retain her status as one of Australia’s most important players on a team playing such a fast-paced brand of basketball. Batkovic had no trouble whatsoever adapting to the Opal’s new style of basketball, playing both games of the Oceania Championships and despite only playing a total of 37 minutes, ranked seventh for Australia she led her country in scoring and ranked third for rebounds. Given her phenomenal form during the 2015/16 WNBL season for the JCU Townsville Fire and her superb record for the Opals Batkovic is ideally placed to represent Australia in a fourth Olympic Games in Rio during August 2016.
During her 14 WNBL seasons Batkovic has played a total of 282 WNBL games at five clubs averaging 16.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game and has played in four WNBL Championships. Throughout her decorated career Batkovic has been able to make substantial contributions for her team in many facets of basketball, whether it be scoring, rebounding, passing, making steals, blocking shots or providing leadership. Although rival teams and players in the WNBL are fully aware of Batkovic’s strengths and propensity to use her favoured left hand they are still unable to reduce the substantial influence she has on games. Given that the WNBL is widely considered to be in the top four women’s basketball leagues in the world and features most of the members of Australia’s national team, the Opal’s it is an incredible performance for one player – Suzy Batkovic to win four of the past five WNBL MVP awards, and one that we are unlikely to see equalled for an extremely long time.
By Dean Andrews
Twitter – @DeanAndrews7777
Milestones and misses
Milestones and misses publishes articles celebrating the milestones of sportsmen and sportswomen, focusing on three teams in particular, the St Kilda Football Club in the AFL, the Dandenong Rangers in the WNBL and the Australian Opals on the world stage. For more information about Milestones and misses click on the link below:
The article above celebrating Suzy Batkovic winning the 2015/16 WNBL MVP Award is the third article published on a member of the Australian Jayco Opals, with the previous two articles comprehensively covering the careers of Abby Bishop and Rachel Jarry. Links to these articles are below: