In return season after a knee reconstruction Zitina Aokuso wins the WNBL’s sixth woman of the year award

After missing the entire 2019/20 WNBL season due a knee reconstruction JCU Townsville Fire power forward/centre Zitina Aukoso made a successful return in 2020 to play all 16 games and made an impact off the bench to be the only player in the WNBL to average less than 22 minutes game-time and more than 8.5 points per game. At the 2020 WNBL End of Season Awards on Monday 14 December 22 year-old Aokuso was named the WNBL Gatorade Sixth Woman of the Year, polling 19 votes to finish two votes ahead of veteran University of Canberra Capitals forward Kelsey Griffin.

Aokuso’s first four seasons on a WNBL roster have all been with the Townsville Fire however she has had a wide range of experiences during this time. At 18 years of age Aokuso made her WNBL debut with Townsville in their championship winning 2017/18 season. After playing limited game-time in her debut season Aokuso was part of Townsville’s core rotation and averaged 9.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game off the bench in 2018/19.

As a junior Aokuso had represented Australia including at the 2016 under 18 Oceania Championships where she was part of the Australian Gems gold medal winning team and was named the MVP of the Gold Medal game against New Zealand.

In April 2019 Aokuso attended her first ever training camp with the senior Australian Women’s basketball team – the Opals on the Gold Coast. After an impressive NBL1 season for the Geelong Supercats in 2019 Aokuso was well placed for the 2019/20 WNBL season with the Townsville Fire however three weeks before the season commenced she injured her left anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and required a knee reconstruction which ruled her out for the season.

Despite the 2020 WNBL season being condensed Aokuso was rewarded for her diligence during her rehabilitation from her knee injury to play all 16 games for Townsville and was efficient during her time on court. Athletic 194 centimetre tall Aokuso averaged 9.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 20.5 minutes per game in 2020, ranked in the WNBL’s top 10 for field goal accuracy and top 20 for rebounds per game to contribute to Townsville making the Grand Final.

Zitina Aokuso’s basketball career is covered in more detail below:

Early life and junior career

Zitina Aokuso was born in Penrith, New South Wales on 23 November 1998 and is from a large Samoan family, being the second youngest of eight children, having three brothers and four sisters. Influenced by her family the first sport Zitina played was volleyball and she didn’t start playing basketball until she was much older than most of her peers in the WNBL. When Zitina she was about 15 years of age and attending Runcorn High School in Brisbane, Queensland, her sports teacher Mr Brown suggested Zitina try out for the high school basketball team which she did and hasn’t looked back since, after making the team she quickly progressed to playing for representative teams.

In an article on the WNBL website in April 2020 Aokuso spoke about her Samoan background saying “I am a proud Samoan. There’s a word that I always try to remember ‘Fa’a Samoa’ meaning, the Samoan Way – trying to maintain the Samoa way everywhere I go is really important. It reminds me to seek God, that no matter where I am in this world, I’m connected to my family, to be humble, have respect, work hard, to love and be kind.”1

Aokuso attended the Basketball Australia Centre of Excellence in Canberra and played for the BA COE in the South East Australian Basketball League (SEABL) in 2016 and 2017. A video of Aokuso at 17 years of age slam dunking at training in January 2016 went viral and one of her goals is to be the first player to slam dunk in a WNBL game.

At the 2016 under 18 Oceania Championship held in Suva, Fiji from 5 to 10 December Aokuso represented the Australian Gems. Aokuso is one of four players from this Gems team that has been named in the Australian Opals 23 player squad for the Tokyo 2021 Olympic Games along with Ezi Magbegor, Maddie Rocci and Jaz Shelley. Court-time was split evenly at the 2016 under 18 Oceania Championship with 10 of the 12 Gems players playing between 80 and 105 minutes court-time at the tournament.

Australia won all five games at the tournament to win the gold medal and in each of the Gems five games Aokuso scored at least eight points and took at least seven rebounds. In Australia’s second game against Samoa Aokuso shot the ball superbly to make eight of her nine field goal attempts at an accuracy of 88.9%, scored 22 points, took eight rebounds and made two assists in 19 minutes game-time. In Australia’s 107-52 victory against New Zealand in the gold medal game Aokuso scored nine points, took a game-high 17 rebounds and was named the MVP of the gold medal game. At the 2016 under 18 Oceania Championship Aokuso averaged 11.8 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 17.5 minutes per game. Aokuso ranked equal third at the tournament along with teammate Magbegor for rebounds per game, ranked sixth for the Gems for scoring and equal fifth for assists.

Australia finished sixth at the 2017 Under 19 World Cup held in Italy from 22 to 30 July, completing the tournament with a record of four wins and three losses. The losses were by a combined margin of nine points and two games including the quarter final were decided by missed shots on the final buzzer. Aokuso played all seven games for Australia and averaged 4.6 points, 4.3 rebounds and 11.1 minutes per game.

During the 2017 SEABL season playing for the Basketball Australia Centre of Excellence Aokuso averaged 8.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.

2017/18 and 2018/19 WNBL seasons with the Townsville Fire

After signing with the Townsville Fire for the 2017/18 WNBL season Aokuso commented to the WNBL website in May 2017 “One of my goals was being able to play in and experience the WNBL and I’ve been blessed to reach that goal. After a year and a bit at the AIS/COE, I’ve grown so much in the game due to my determination and support from coaching staff. I am determined to bring a positive mindset and drive to excel in all aspects of the game. I’m really looking forward to Townsville itself, training and playing alongside and against the best in Australia.”2

Townsville Fire head coach Claudia Brassard commented on Aokuso’s signing “Zitina is an exciting recruit for our club. She is one of Queensland’s most promising young athletes and I’m really looking forward to working with her. She is athletically gifted, an excellent rebounder and more importantly very eager to work on her game. She is a late comer to basketball and I see her as having a world of potential and I believe her competing against some of the best forwards in the nation everyday will help her improve her game.”3

At the Townsville Fire Aokuso was able to train and play alongside a very accomplished front-court which included three-time Olympian Suzy Batkovic, 2016 Olympian Cayla George and Darcee Garbin. In 2014/15 George and Batkovic finished second and third respectively in the WNBL’s Most Valuable Player Award and played a crucial role in Townsville winning their first WNBL Championship. Townsville went back to back, winning the 2015/16 title and Batkovic was the most dominant player in the league winning her fourth WNBL MVP award in that season and followed it up with her fifth WNBL MVP in 2016/17.

Townsville finished the 2017/18 regular season third on the ladder with a record of 14 wins and seven losses and defeated the second placed Sydney Flames two games to nil in a semi final series to progress to the grand final. In the other semi final minor premiers the Perth Lynx were upset by the Melbourne Boomers who had finished the regular season with 12 wins.

All three Grand Final games were a sell-out with 8,000 spectators attending the three game series which was also broadcast live by Fox Sports on pay TV. The home team won each game of the series with Townsville winning game 3 at Townsville Stadium 70-57 to win the club’s third championship in four seasons. Batkovic was named the Grand Final MVP and also won her sixth WNBL MVP Award. Throughout the 2017/18 season Aokuso played limited game-time in her 15 games, averaging 2.7 points and 2.1 rebounds per game. When Aokuso was on the bench she remained enthusiastically engaged in the game and had a variety of dance moves to celebrate the good play of her teammates.  

After signing a two year contract extension with the JCU Townsville Fire for the 2018/19 and 2019/20 seasons Aokuso commented to the WNBL website in early April 2018 “I’m looking forward to coming back to the Fire for so many reasons. Getting a dose of the awesome atmosphere at Townsville Stadium on game days, being coached for a second season by Claudia (Brassard) and playing alongside the greatest veterans (made it enticing). Last season was my rookie year and it was the greatest experience I have had in my basketball career to date. Experiencing my first ever WNBL championship was a blessing and I am pretty hungry for more of those experiences. Lastly, I’ve got a few new dance moves that I would love to share with the Ville.”4

Cayla George left Townsville and joined WNBL rivals the Melbourne Boomers for the 2018/19 season which created more opportunities for Aokuso to play in the front-court. Before the 2018/19 season commenced Batkovic announced that she would be retiring at the end of the WNBL season.  

During the off-season Aokuso worked diligently in the gym to improve her strength and fitness which paid dividends. After playing limited minutes in 2017/18 Aokuso was part of Townsville’s core rotation in 2018/19.

On December 1 Batkovic injured her back in a Round 8 game against the Melbourne Boomers at the State Basketball Centre and due to the injury didn’t play again until the final game of the season on 19 January. With Batkovic out injured Aokuso continued in her role off the bench but was given more game-time.

Before the final round of the 2018/19 WNBL season Batkovic commented on Aokuso “Z’s just been phenomenal. From last year to this year, that kid has made leaps and bounds. It’s been a pleasure working with her. She listens, she learns and she wants to learn. There’ve been times when I’ve given her a bit of tough love and it’s because I want to see her get better. I look forward to watching her develop and sitting on the sidelines next season and watching her grow as an athlete. I have no doubt down the track she’s definitely going to be in the Australian team, but the ball’s in her court.”5

Batkovic also commented on Aokuso’s aerobic fitness, saying “She’s an unbelievable athlete in terms of her athleticism, her strength. And she’s only 20 and only started basketball late. I remember in fitness testing last year, she was beating our guards in all the tests. She’s 6’4” and she’s strong.”6

Townsville finished the 2018/19 season sixth on the ladder with 12 wins and nine losses. Aokuso took her game to another stratosphere to play 21 games and average 9.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game.

NBL1 season with the Geelong Supercats in 2019

During the 2019 NBL1 season Aokuso played for the Geelong Supercats and formed an imposing frontcourt with Magbegor and Sara Blicavs. With their skill-sets, size and athleticism the Gelong frontcourt trio proved a difficult match-up for opposition teams and they each averaged more than 15.0 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.

Geelong had a 14 game winning streak and finished the season with a record of 17 wins and three losses. In the finals Geelong defeated minor premiers the Bendigo Lady Braves to advance to the Grand Final against the Kilsyth Cobras at the State Basketball Centre.

The Kilsyth Cobras led by Zitina’s current Townsville Fire teammate Lauren Nicholson led by 10 points at quarter-time and maintained the ascendancy all game to defeat Geelong 86-76. Nicholson scored 36 points, had 10 rebounds and six assists to be the Grand Final MVP. During the 2019 NBL1 season Aokuso played 19 games for the Geelong Supercats and averaged 15.9 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game.

Knee injury and 2020 WNBL season with the Townsville Fire

In May 2019 Claudia Brassard resigned as the head coach of the Townsville Fire. The catalyst for  Brassard’s decision was a change in her work commitments with the Townsville City Council. 

In June 2019 Shannon Seebohm was appointed as the head coach of the Townsville Fire for three seasons. Seebohm coached the Sydney Uni Flames in the WNBL in 2014/15 and 2015/16 and was named the league’s coach of the year in his debut season. Seebohm has also coached the Australian Gems Under 17 team at several tournaments including the 2016 World Championships where they won a gold medal.

At training three weeks before the 2019/20 WNBL season commenced Aokuso tore her left anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and required a knee reconstruction. In an article published on the WNBL website on 23 April 2020 Aukoso spoke about her ACL injury, saying “I’ve had my fair share of injuries, but nothing to this extent. I found myself just saying ‘OMG this is the end of my basketball career’, and I found that hard to accept. Being 21, I admit I was a bit dramatic but having some tough sisters in my corner telling me to toughen up everything will be ok, and to also have the love and support of my family, friends and the Townsville Fire family really pulled at the heartstrings.”7

The knee injury was hard to deal with physically but also took a toll mentally, especially given that Aokuso suffered the injury just three weeks before the 2019/20 WNBL season commenced. Later in the interview Aokuso commented “I felt lost; I mean I had a really good offseason playing in the NBL1. I really put myself in a position to be a better player and focused hard to take on pre-season training with Townsville Fire. I was in the right headspace, had a positive mindset, and I felt like I had all the tools I needed to have a successful season. But the moment I hit the ground all that went away. It was crushing you know just preparing yourself and telling yourself this is your year, and to have my season end before it even started, it was really hard to accept. I don’t think I would have been able to get through recovery and rehab without my faith in God, family, friends and the support from the Townsville Fire family.”8

Townsville had five wins during the 2019/20 season and finished last on the ladder. When Seebohm was appointed as Townsville’s head coach in June 2019 most of free-agents had already signed with clubs and much of Townsville’s roster for the 2019/20 season had already been determined. In his future seasons Seebohm would have a greater involvement in player recruitment and it would be easier for him to implement the playing style he wanted. 

Reflecting on being out injured for the 2019/20 WNBL season Aokuso commented “Being on the sideline last season was one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do. The main takeaways from an off-court perspective is that I’ll never take the opportunity to do the thing I love and being able to be active for granted. But, knowing I couldn’t be on the court, I managed to find ways I could still stay involved.”9

In Seebohm’s second season as head coach of the Townsville Fire they had a new look team with only two players from the 2019/20 roster returning for the 2020 season, Aokuso and Kate Gaze. Due to her knee reconstruction Aokuso was unable to play for Townsville during the 2019/20 season so Gaze was the solitary player that played WNBL games for the Fire in both 2019/20 and 2020. One of Townsville’s off-season recruits Mia Murray had extensive experience playing for Townsville, including playing in the club’s three WNBL championships in 2014/15, 2015/16 and 2017/18 and won the Rachel Sporn Medal as Grand Final MVP when Townsville won their first title in 2014/15.    

In a pre-season interview with the Pick and Roll Townsville head coach Seebohm commented on Townsville’s lack of height in the power forward and centre positions during the 2019/20 season and the impact Aokuso would have in 2020, saying “Many of the challenges we faced probably came down to not having a true ‘back to the basket’ player that can get on the offensive boards, get us some easy put-backs, defend around the rim and help clean up some of the messes that are created with defensive breakdowns. I think Zitina would have given us that. She certainly would have just added to the depth in those positions last year and really would have helped anchor our defence. I’m super excited to get Zitina back out on court. She’s got tremendous, tremendous upside. I think she’s a potential WNBA player in the future, no doubt.”10

Due to the impact of COVID-19 the 2020 WNBL season had a very different structure to recent seasons and imports weren’t eligible to play in the league. All eight WNBL clubs were located in North Queensland for the duration of the 2020 WNBL season which was played at three locations, Townsville, Cairns and Mackay. The regular season was condensed to five rounds commencing 11 November and each team played 13 regular season games.

Although it was more difficult for fans to attend games in 2020 due to the season being played in hubs in North Queensland the WNBL had an increased television presence and there was less competition from other sports for the attention of viewers. All 56 games during the 2020 WNBL season were broadcast on Kayo, 10 games including the Grand Final were be shown on free to air network ABC and 21 games including all four finals were telecast on Foxtel.

Three of the finalists from the 2019/20 season, The University of Canberra Capitals, Melbourne Boomers and Southside Flyers retained the majority of their playing rosters for the 2020 season and the common consensus was that they would be the top three teams in 2020. Townsville were expected to be one of the big improvers in 2020 and with the benefit of being able to play some games on their home court at Townsville Stadium were in the mix to make a return to the finals. 

Townsville Fire’s starting line-up in 2020 was Australian Opals squad members Shyla Heal and Nicholson in the backcourt along with Mia Murray, Nadeen Payne and Magan McKay in the front-court. Aokuso was one of three players off the bench to average more than 15 minutes game-time along with guards Steph Reid and Kate Gaze. In 15 of her 16 games during 2020 Aokuso started on the bench, her solitary start for the season was in Round 4 against Perth when Megan McKay didn’t play due to an ankle injury.

After being scoreless in the first quarter of the Round 2 game against Bendigo at Townsville Stadium Aokuso made a significant impact when she was substituted back into the game with seven minutes and 33 seconds to play in the second term, scoring field goals for Townsville on three consecutive possessions. Aokuso’s second field goal was a left handed hook shot from the middle of the key and on the next possession she rebounded her own miss and scored a right handed banked field goal from close range. Aokuso scored 15 points in the second half comprised of six points in the third quarter and nine points in the fourth quarter to help Townsville overcome a 40-47 half-time deficit and defeat Bendigo 91-81. Aokuso finished the game with 21 points ranked second for the game behind teammate Shyla Heal with 22 points, took five rebounds and made two assists. Aokuso shot the ball exceptionally, making nine of her 11 field goal attempts at an accuracy of 81.8%. In each of her first five games of the season up to and including the Round 2 game against Bendigo Aokuso scored at least eight points and took at least five rebounds however in the post game TV interview with Megan Hustwaite Aokuso commented that she was “Feeling a bit rusty, but each game I feel I am getting better.”

In a 73-59 victory against the Sydney Uni Flames on 29 November Aokuso registered a double-double comprised of 16 points and 10 rebounds to lead Townsville in both categories despite playing only 20 minutes and 28 seconds game-time – ranked sixth for the Fire. After the game Townsville’s coach Seebohm commented on Aokuso “Z’s been great for us this year. I thought Z came today locked in with a great mindset and showed everybody just how good she can be.”

Despite having a new look team the Townville Fire gelled together beautifully in 2020 and one of the teams greatest strengths was the combination of post players Aokuso and McKay with guards Heal and Nicholson in on ball screens. Aokuso and McKay are both effective at setting screens and then rolling to the basket whilst Heal and Nicholson are both adept at using space created from a screen to drive to the basket, pull-up for a mid-range jumper, or alternatively pass to the roller if they are open.

During the 2020 season the Townsville Fire exceeded expectations to secure a play-off berth before playing their last regular season game of the season against fellow finalists the Melbourne Boomers. In the following game the other two finalists the University of Canberra Capitals and the Southside Flyers were playing against each other. If Townsville and Southside won their respective games on the final day of the regular season, Sunday 13 December Townsville would finish second on the ladder and have a double chance.

In the Round 5 game at Townsville Stadium the Melbourne Boomers scored the first eight points and led 16-9 at quarter-time. During the second quarter Aokuso scored six points to help Townsville gain the ascendency and lead 40-33 at half-time. With three minutes and 56 seconds remaining in the third term Townsville’s lead had been reduced to one point, 48-47. Townsville outscored Melbourne 9-2 for the remainder of the third quarter to extend the lead to eight points, 57-49 with Aokuso scoring four points comprised of two free throws and a lay-up. The final quarter was low scoring and Townsville won the game against Melbourne 70-64. In a low scoring game Aokuso’s shooting efficiency stood out, making seven of her eight field goal attempts at an accuracy of 87.5%, she also took an equal-team high seven rebounds along with Payne. Aokuso’s 16 points ranked second for Townsville behind Nicholson with 23 and only one other Fire player was in double figures – Kate Gaze with 11 points.

Southside defeated the Capitals in the following game 101-82 to win the minor premiership with a record of 11 wins and two losses. The Townsville Fire were one of three teams along with University of Canberra Capitals and Melbourne Boomers to finish with a record of nine wins and four losses. Townsville won the tie-breaker due to having the best record in the games between the three teams to finish second. Due to the condensed season all finals were played at Townsville Stadium and were a single game rather a three-game series.

At the 2020 WNBL End of Season Awards held at the Ville Resort in Townsville on Monday 14 December Aokuso was named the WNBL Gatorade Sixth Woman of the Year, polling 19 votes to finish two votes ahead of veteran University of Canberra Capitals forward Kelsey Griffin. Highlighting the depth of Townsville’s team one of Zitina’s team-mates, guard Steph Reid finished equal third with Sydney guard Funda Nakkasoglu on 13 votes. The award was voted on by each club’s captain and coach with each voter casting votes for the top three players in the category.

The Townsville Fire featured prominently at the 2020 WNBL End of Season Awards with Shyla Heal being named the Betty Watson Australian Youth Player of the Year Award and Seebohm was named the WNBL Coach of the Year. Both members of Townsville’s starting backcourt were selected in an All-WNBL team, Nicholson was selected in the first team and finished third in the WNBL MVP award and Heal was selected in the second team.

Southside dominated the opening quarter of the major semi final 41-25 and defeated Townsville 106-93. The preliminary final between Townsville and the Melbourne Boomers was a low-scoring encounter. With five minutes and 30 seconds remaining in the third quarter Townsville led 44-41, Aokuso scored field goals on the Fires next two possessions to extend the margin to seven points, first of all taking an offensive rebound and making a banked put-back from close range followed by a right-handed lay-up after setting a screen for Heal, rolling to the basket and receiving a bounce pass from Heal. Townsville extended the lead to nine points 63-54 with four minutes and 57 seconds remaining in the game however Melbourne scored eight unanswered points to reduce the margin to one point with 40 seconds remaining. Heal made two free throws with 24 seconds to increase the margin to three points. In the last 10 seconds Melbourne had two attempts to tie the game with three-pointers, firstly Magbegor followed by Garrick, Aokuso rebounded Garrick’s miss with a second remaining and Townsville won a thriller 65-62 to progress to the Grand Final. Aokuso scored 10 points in the preliminary final, ranked third for Townsville behind Heal (28 points) and Nicholson (12 points) and took five rebounds.

Very little separated Townsville and Southside during the first half of the Grand Final at Townsville Stadium on Sunday 20 December and Southside led 48-46 at half-time. Southside outscored Townsville 23-15 in the third quarter and went on to win the Grand Final 99-82. In the Grand Final Aokuso made four of her seven field goal attempts at an accuracy of 57.1% to score eight points, took three rebounds, had one assist and one steal.

Given the success Townsville had during the 2020 season and the stability they have coach Seebohm being signed until the end of 2024 they are well placed to have continuity with their roster for the 2021/22 season and beyond and contend strongly for the WNBL Championship.

During 2020 Aokuso played all 16 games for the Townsville Fire, averaging 9.6 points (up from 9.5 in 2018/19), 5.5 rebounds (down from 5.6 in 2018/19), 1.1 assists (same as 2018/19) and 20.5 minutes per game. At Townsville Aokuso ranked third in scoring and rebounds and sixth for minutes played. In seven of her 16 games in 2020 Aokuso had a field goal accuracy of at least 65%. Aokuso had a field goal accuracy of 54.6% which ranked sixth in the WNBL among players that made at least 10 field goals for the season. In 12 of her 16 games Aokuso played between 16 and 22 minutes game-time, three times she played in excess of 22 minutes and once she played less than 16 minutes.

Frequently when players are returning from a knee reconstruction it takes time for them to build form and match conditioning and as a precaution they are sometimes rested from back to back games. Due to the condensed nature of the 2020 WNBL season there was little opportunity for 194 centimetre tall Aokuso to build form and conditioning as the season progressed.

Throughout the 2020 WNBL season Zitina Aokuso with her athleticism, ability to score, rebound and perform one percenters such as setting screens effectively played her role for the JCU Townsville Fire. Aokuso’s averages for points, rebounds and assists per game in 2020 were almost identical to her averages for the 2018/19 season however her field goal accuracy significantly improved, rising from 46.4% in 2018/19 to 54.7% in 2020. Aokuso ranked in the top 20 of the WNBL for rebounds per game and made an impact on the scoreboard to be the only player in the WNBL to average less than 22 minutes played and more than 8.5 points per game. It was a tremendous performance from Aokuso in her return season after a knee reconstruction to win the WNBL Gatorade Sixth Woman of the Year Award and a testament to her dedication during the rehabilitation process.

Article and photographs By Dean Andrews

Twitter – @DeanAndrews7777












Milestones and Misses

Milestones and Misses publishes articles to celebrate the achievements of sportspeople, mainly in the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL) and the Australian Football League (AFL). In sport as with life in general it is common that milestones are only achieved after overcoming adversity, so whilst the articles on the Milestones and Misses website celebrate sportspeople achieving milestones they also cover the misses along the journey, such as a player  playing minimal game-time or spending a prolonged period on the sidelines due to injury. The aim of the articles is to enable readers to gain a greater appreciation of the journey the sportspeople have had during their career.

A link to the Milestones and Misses homepage is below:

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