The Cockburn Cougars couldn’t have possibly made a more emphatic statement to start the 2023 NBL1 West season with a 97-55 victory against the Willetton Tigers at Wally Hagan Stadium.
It was a rematch of last year’s cracking semi-final contest which Willetton did win over Cockburn in overtime. The Cougars opened the new season in style on Saturday night against a Tigers team that did beat the Rockingham Flames 24 hours prior.
It was the first game of the season for the Cougars and after shaking off some early cobwebs, they soon were locked in showing the improvement at the defensive end headed up by new recruit Steph Gorman with the job she did on Perth Lynx WNBL star Alex Sharp.
After leading 23-16 by quarter-time and still being up 45-39 at the half, Cockburn held Willetton to just four points all of the third quarter while scoring 30 themselves before securing the eventual 42-point victory.
Jewel Williams starred for the Cougars with 25 points, four assists and three rebounds while Jessie Edwards contributed 16 points, six boards and three assists, Steph Gorman 17 points and nine rebounds, and Sarah Mortensen 11 points, 12 boards and five assists.
Cougars coach Tyrone Thwaites challenged his team to make a statement to open the season and they certainly delivered.
“The reality was in the first quarter or quarter and-a-half we were getting those first game of the season nerves out, and they probably didn’t have that given they played the night before. To shake it off and do it as comprehensively as we did was really pleasing,” Thwaites said.
“We did ask the girls to make a statement, and I think we ticked that box Saturday night.
“We’re pretty realistic and put things in context, and understand that Willetton doesn’t have a team at full strength, but at the same time the way in which we put together that result was really pleasing.
“Particularly that third quarter which is possibly the best overall defensive performance I’ve seen from a Cockburn group in my time.”
The Cougars ended up shooting 17/50 from beyond the arc as a team while winning the rebound count by eight, forcing Willetton into 18 turnovers and causing them to shoot 16/64 at 25 per cent from the floor.
It’s that improved defence with a continued offensive flair that has Thwaites excited for this 2023 team.
“It really was a big focus for us and we know everyone likes to say defence wins championships, but at the end of the day the team that scores the most points wins,” he said.
“We are offensively minded, but at the same time you do need to stop the other team scoring too. While we scored a ton last year, we couldn’t stop the bleeding on the other side of the ball.
“So to start to turn that around is nice and it has been an emphasis point, but it’s just one game of 20 and we have to back it up this week.”
Gorman made quite the spectacular NBL1 West debut for the Cougars not only with 17 points, nine rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks, but with her standout defensive performance on former league MVP Sharp.
Thwaites is already putting her in the mix to take over from Emma Gandini as the league’s standout defender while he was also impressed with the all-round showing of Danish import Mortensen after only arriving a week earlier.
“I’m happy to go a little bit more ambitiously with Steph on this one because I think she’s a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year well and truly already,” Thwaites said.
“The job she did on Sharpy was ridiculous. She still had 17 points and 14 rebounds, but of those 17 points eight were from the foul line and she had to work for everything.
“She shot 28 per cent from the field so the job Steph did on her was elite, so we were really proud of her. She’s probably the upgrade we needed on the defensive end.
“Then Sarah, she’s only had two training sessions with us and still had a double-double. She’s a great human being and we love her, and she’s great for our team culture and morale.
“She rebounds like crazy and had 12 on Saturday night. She can shoot the ball and even though she went 1/9 (from beyond the arc), when she gets going and finds her rhythm we will be difficult to guard.”