Launceston Tornadoes season has been one of ups and downs.
Losing US import Mikaela Ruef before the start of the season was the first blow, which was only amplified by the fact Derrick Washington lost his first three games in charge.
Skipper Lauren Mansfield has been unavailable for a large part due to injury and Opals duties, requiring SEABL and Launceston MVP Lauren Nicholson, Ellie Collins and Ally Wilson to carry a bulk of the load.
Northern Tasmania’s only semi-professional basketball outfit managed to string a couple of season-defining winning streaks together to earn a top-four finish and a double finals chance.
However, they didn’t need it – stunning the SEABL world by taking down undefeated Bendigo Braves in emphatic fashion to advance through to the preliminary final where they defeated Nunawading at home.
Now they have the chance to win their first championship since 1995 on Saturday.
Here is a recap of the season to date.
Game 1 v Kilsyth Cobras – lost 93-70
Amid all the talk of a new era, Launceston came out to play hard.
But in a near point-for-point game during the first three-and-a-half quarters, it quickly turned from fired up to more like fizzle.
Back on court for their much-awaited SEABL season opener, the Torns surrendered a three-point break to go and concede the final 26 points of the encounter.
Game 2 v Hobart Chargers – lost 85-84
Tornadoes came home twice at the death to almost pull off a remarkable comeback win.
Dramatic last shots in both regular time and overtime could not produce the home side’s opening victory at home.
Lauren Nicholson had put up the ball wedged between crunching Hobart defenders in the dying seconds to steal the win, but the shot didn’t drop.
Game 3 v Dandenong Rangers – lost 72-61
Long-time club favourite Tayla Roberts came back to haunt her once former Tornadoes teammates.
The Launceston-born star forward scored 21 points to inflict punishment playing for her adopted Dandenong SEABL side.
Game 4 v Ballarat Rush – won 93-88
The Torns snapped an opening three-game losing streak.
Washington’s breakthrough win in the second leg of a Victorian road double came down to cool heads in the dying minutes.
Shots dropping and stern defence ensured the resilient visitors prevailed.
“The girls were so excited because all the games that we lost, we could have won,” Washington said.
Game 5 v Sandringham Sabres – lost 97-69
A disjointed Launceston looked terribly out of sorts, suffering a third straight loss at home to start the season.
Washington was at pains to explain the uncharacteristic defeat at Elphin: “We know can draw back and we’re going to make that happen next week. It’ll definitely happen next game”.
Game 6 v v Geelong Supercats – won 73-70
The side orchestrated a stunning comeback to keep their precarious season alive.
Washington did not mince his words last week on the back of a sinking 1-4 record, assuring fans victory against the reigning SEABL titleholders at home.
The rookie coach would have been cringing entering the last term 11 points down.
Game 7 v Frankston Blues – won 98-86
Launceston sounded out an ominous Tornadoes warning, blasting Frankston off the court early.
That warning also came in the shape of a blue-chip display from Australian Opals guard Lauren Mansfield.
Three games back since a rusty return from Poland when the 28-year-old scored just five points, Mansfield raised the bar to an entire new level for 31 points.
Game 8 v Albury-Wodonga – won 115-91
Washington described the resounding result at Albury as the turning point on the road for the Tornadoes’ drive going forward.
After an early bumpy ride missing key passengers, the win improved the Torns’ win-loss record to a manageable 4-4.
The triple-figure score is a SEABL record, bettering the season-best mark by 12.
Game 9 v Sydney Uni – won 76-63
Mansfield was stretched out on the medical bench, looking as far as the eyes could see after the game to a long queue of eager autograph hunters.
The unwanted attention was not by design - the 28-year-old Australian Opal guard was resting her ankle up from a nasty fall.
The gasps halfway through the final quarter marred a dominant victory.
Game 10 v Ballarat Miners – won 73-72
A prolonged referee call that was also followed by a further tense wait on court after the final buzzer handed a depleted Launceston a fifth victory on the trot.
One late foul committed on towering Miners centre Joy Burke was later cancelled out after the three referees went into private discussion before later consulting with their bench officials.
The opportunity to go to the line for two free throws was waved away that brought on raucous cheers from the partisan hometown crowd.
Game 11 v Canberra – won 88-83
Washington watched from the sidelines full of genuine admiration for Launceston’s fine comeback triumph.
Down by as many as 14 points halfway into the final term, the visitors turned it around with a 28-15 quarter.
A frenetic final five-and-a-half minutes left Canberra fans stunned.
Game 12 v Nunawading Spectres – lost 79-59
Stepping off the tarmac and onto the court two hours after flying from Canberra to Melbourne conspired to end Launceston’s brave six-game winning run.
Add the untoward pressure of a third straight game without inspirational skipper Mansfield spelt a heavy defeat at Nunawading in Melbourne’s inner eastern suburbs.
But Washington refused to put a downer on the performance considering an array of unusual circumstances.
Game 13 v Melbourne Tigers – lost 76-72
Launceston for the first three quarters just toyed the ball like yarn at Melbourne Tigers.
But the big cat scratched back to leave the hosts running out of puff in the chase at Elphin.
Only two three-pointers from 36-year-old stalwart Ali Partridge towards the close of the tough encounter kept the Tornadoes in with a shot.
Game 14 v BA COE – won 88-60
American signing Courtney Williams came off a shallow bench to ensure her new side left Canberra winners.
The visitors were always in control and never trailed the youthful BA COE once from the opening tip-off.
Washington’s hot charges got out to an easy 25-9 lead by quarter-time and went on to win every quarter.
Game 15 v Sandringham Sabres – won 114-84
The side cast aside Sandringham in a stunning reversal of fortunes on the road.
Some 57 days after the fifth-placed rivals blitzed them in their backyard, the visitors owned the Sabres’ court.
The Tornadoes also fell just one point shy of breaking their own SEABL season scoring record set against Albury-Wodonga Bandits six weeks earlier.
Game 16 v Dandenong Rangers – won 82-74
The entertaining Washington was at his excitable best as the sixth-placed Torns withstood a late surge from the fourth-placed Dandenong Rangers to win.
“I love the game of basketball and just want the best for my girls. I just want them to be successful. I’m into the game and love it,” he said.
Game 17 v Bendigo Braves – lost 95-81
It was a game that Washington called “a real learning curve”.
The loss could not have come at a better time as Washington had his first glance at Bendigo, and the Braves showed why they were topping the SEABL standings with 16 wins without defeat.
Game 18 v Melbourne Tigers – won 94-72
Washington heaped praise on his star charges for bouncing back quickly to record a potent road win.
The result brought an unflinching edge to the second game of the weekend double-header that was in stark contrast to a subservient 14-point loss to Bendigo.
“They really did and I was proud of how they bounced back after playing the best team in the league,” Washington said.
Game 19 v Diamond Valley – won 83-72
Ellie Collins amassed 27 points and 12 rebounds in the defeat of Diamond Valley at home.
Nicholson also recorded a double double – adding 15 rebounds to her 17 points – while Wilson hit 25 points including a nerve-settling three-pointer late in the contest when the visitors had edged to within eight points.
Game 20 v Hobart Chargers – won 99-85
Launceston assured themselves of a top-four finish and a double-chance in the finals after defeating Tasmanian rivals Hobart down South – avenging for an early season one-point loss.
The win was set up in a huge third quarter that saw the Torns extend a two-point half-time margin into a 77-63 lead at the final break thanks to a 34-22 third quarter.
Qualifying final v Bendigo Braves – won 84-77
Launceston earned a home preliminary final by stunning previously-unbeaten title favourites Bendigo in Victoria.
The Tornadoes’ 84-77 win came without the help of Opals guard Mansfield, who had been expected to return, leaving league MVP Nicholson to again play a starring role.
Preliminary final v Nunawading Sprectres – won 75-65
Launceston Tornadoes booked a place in the SEABL decider with an electric 10-point take down of Nunawading at a sold-out Elphin Sports Centre after falling at the penultimate stage in the past two seasons.
Nicholson (26 points, 12 rebounds and four assists) and Wilson (23 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists) split best-on-court honours with the pair mastering three-point shots.
Grand final v Bendigo Braves – time will tell!
In its first championship match since 2010, can Launceston cause another boilover against favourites Bendigo Braves?
The Torns haven’t won a SEABL title since 1995.
We think it’s about time!