In a battle of the unbeaten, the Sevenoaks Suns will vie to become the first-ever two-time WBBL Cup champions when they take on the Championship-leading Leicester Riders in Friday’s showpiece contest live on Sky Sports.
The Suns will compete in the final for the third time of the tournament’s first five seasons having beaten the Durham Palatinates 74-64 to clinch last year’s title, while Leicester enter as reigning WBBL Trophy winners and Championship frontrunners with five wins out of five so far this campaign.
After Covid disruptions resulted in the game being pushed back to this week, it awaits as not only a shot at more silverware for both sides but also added escapism and reward for perseverance on and off the court amid a testing period for sport.
“At the end of the day there’s a winner and a loser – there’s no draws in basketball, and we want to win,” said Suns captain and former WBBL MVP Cat Carr. “This has definitely been the most trying year I’ve had at the club, so winning would be awesome and probably top any of the other things I’ve won here.
“As a team we’ve gone through a lot collectively, individually, and personally, in this timeframe of uncertainty and everything that is going on, so it would mean a lot to be successful this weekend and this season.
“Some people might say it’s just basketball, but this is what we do – this is our profession, our livelihood and what we do day in, day out, so to be able to play means a lot to us and to be successful this weekend, especially in the circumstances, would mean a lot too.”
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Both teams won each of their three group stage games en route to the final and have both enjoyed 100 per cent starts in the Championship, while the Suns hold the edge in regards to their head-to-head record with seven wins compared to the Riders’ three in their last 10 meetings.
Leicester’s success so far this season has been spearheaded by two-time WBBL Young Player of the Year Holly Winterburn, who returned to Britain after a spell with the University of Oregon in the United States.
The 20-year-old is averaging a team-high 16 points and 5.2 rebounds per game in the Championship, along with 11.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game in the WBBL Cup.
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“I’m pleased with how I’ve performed this season in some ways but not in others,” said Winterburn. “I feel like I can definitely be more focused in the games – I feel like it has taken me a bit longer than I’d like to find my rhythm sometimes – but I think the situation we’re in plays a part in that a bit.
“I’m quite happy with how I’m performing, I’m not too mad about it, and I have to remember that I’m learning a new role as a lead guard so I’m just trying to take it as it comes. I’m not putting too much pressure on myself and just focusing on getting the win – I’ll find the identity I want to have as a player more in the future.
“We started training back in August and were doing just that for a long time with no games to look forward to, so it was hard to put all those hours in with no reward at the end of it, and it has been a challenging season. Lockdown changed our mindset, I think, with elite sport allowed to continue, and helped us realise how lucky we are and how we have to make the most of this.”
Carr, who put up 22 points in the Suns’ only Championship game so far this season, meanwhile boasts Cup Final pedigree with the record for most field goals in a game (10/22). The same can be said for last year’s MVP Janice Monakana, who has featured in all three of the team’s appearances in the final and went a game-record eight-for-eight from the free-throw line in 2019’s loss to the Sheffield Hatters.
🗣️ "Some people might say it’s just basketball, but this is what we do – this is our profession, our livelihood and what we do day in, day out." – @KittyCarr22
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Sevenoaks captain Carr notably contributed a 14-point, 12-rebound double-double to go alongside seven assists in her team’s 69-67 semi-final victory over the Nottingham Wildcats, who could have forced the game into overtime with five seconds remaining only to see Chelsey Shumpert’s effort bounce off the rim and into the grateful hands of Renee Busch.
A tone-setter with her winning mentality and competitiveness, Carr admits the events of the past year have been a learning curve when it comes to appreciating the opportunity to do what she loves.
“Enjoying the game has absolutely been more of a focus for me since the pandemic, wanting to be able to enjoy the moments more,” she said. “That’s how my perspective has changed this year, being even more grateful for having the ability to get out on the court and play the game that I love – nothing can compare to that.
“Sometimes when you’re very competitive you get wrapped up in needing to win, and our success has definitely put us on that level of being a team that everybody wants to beat, living up to the Sevenoaks Suns name and what we are now, but the pandemic has made me realise how much I want to enjoy it.”
Neither side are strangers to the big occasion, with Friday’s game representing Sevenoaks’ eighth major final appearance and Leicester’s seventh since the WBBL launched back in 2014.
Winterburn knows what to expect from the Suns, and believes her time in the States has prepared her for the challenge.
“They’re a very tough team to come up against,” she said. “You never really see them scrambling, you never see them arguing amongst themselves – they’re such a solid unit in many ways and they’re so hard to break down, which I think is their biggest strength. Whether it be technically, tactically or physically, we have to find a way to break them down.
“When I was here at Leicester previously I would dread playing Sevenoaks personally because they’re such a hard team to play against, but obviously since then and with my time at Oregon and the experiences I had there, I’m excited to play them this time and confident in the team that we can get the job done.”
Carr meanwhile suggested there are parallels between her side and Friday’s opponents, who cruised to a 67-27 victory over the Cardiff Met Archers in the semi-finals having led by 24 at the end of the first half.
“We’ve played them a lot of times in big games over the last couple of years – we’re yet to face them this season, but we’ve been watching their games – and they’re very similar to ourselves in that they have a good core that they stick with and everybody has a role,” said Carr.
“When you get people that play their roles that well and they work together and complement each other then you’re going to have a good team, and that’s what Leicester have done.
“They like to run, they have a defensive plan that they’re very good at, they’re very well-rounded and that’s why they’re successful, and we’re looking forward to facing them in the final.”
Tune in to Sky Sports Arena or Sky Sports YouTube on Friday to watch the Sevenoaks Suns take on the Leicester Riders, with coverage starting at 5pm and tip-off at 5.30pm.
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