The Cockburn Cougars men broke through for their first win of the NBL1 West season but it was a night about much more than that to honour the memory of Vanessa Cooper.
It was an emotional week for everyone involved at the Cougars following the passing of Vanessa Cooper after a battle with cancer. While that puts basketball in perspective, at the same time the Cooper family and the wider Cougar Family pulled together on Saturday night.
The Cougars took on the Lakeside Lightning at Wally Hagan Stadium with Vanessa’s husband Andrew coaching the team on the urging of his wife and with their two daughters Tahnee and Jesni on hand for the evening as well.
Cockburn did come away with the first win of the season by beating Lakeside 83-77 and that provided a great sense of relief for everyone involved after losing the opening five games of the season.
While there is a lot more going on for the Cooper family right now with the sudden passing of their wife and mother, Saturday night was all about them pulling together with their basketball family and it meant a lot to Andrew.
“I didn’t coach for Vanessa as such, but I coached because Vanessa wanted me to coach and wants me to continue to coach so I can keep doing something that I love,” Cooper said.
“I coached at the end of the day because they are my team and my players, and we respect each other and really they are an extension of my family.
“That’s how it’s been from the very start and I put a lot of pride into my players in that sort of area, and we feel like we part of each other’s family. They all shared the same grief with Vanessa’s passing and it felt like it was important to coach because that’s what she wanted me to do.”
With a 49-second silence pre-game to remember Vanessa and then for Andrew to have the support of his daughters with him to help get through the night, it’s something that the family felt was important to go through together.
“Having been through so much personally together but also basketball has always been such a big part of our family which they’ve been a big part of, so it was important to have them there,” he said.
“Getting them to come out and be part of the 49 second silence before the game and just being able to acknowledge everything and the people who have helped and support us together was important. Part of that was having them on the court and feeling them there next to me was important.”
By the time the game was over, the Cougars had prevailed with the six-point win to open their account for the season and there was a great feeling of relief that swept over Cooper.
“It was relief to be honest more than anything to get the win. It was relief and it’s hard to explain because you just never know how these things are going to play out,” Cooper said.
“You try to plan ahead for how you’d like it to go, but you just never quite know how it’s going to turn out but I was confident that we could get up and get the win.
“It was definitely a relief on a number of fronts afterwards because I wanted to make Vanessa proud but also pay respect to the club for everything they did, and the players especially. The players definitely dug deep and I could tell it was important to them, and I could tell on the night.”
The Cougars had to dig deep to get the win as well and came into the match without 271-game vice-captain and point guard Seva Chan while Josh Hunt suffered a broken nose after an encouraging start with 11 points, three assists, two blocks and two rebounds in 18 minutes.
However, there was a lot to like in the eventual win with Taj Benning finishing with 15 points and five rebounds, Gavin Field 14 points, 10 boards, four assists and two blocks, Luke Phillips 13 points and two rebounds, and Kieran Berry 11 points, five boards and three assists.
Cooper has drilled into his team that to be successful they have to outwork their opponents, and he was glad to see them do that.
“I’ve told the boys numerous that we’re a blue collar team. We’re not a big budget, big spending organisation and we need to pride ourselves on working harder than other people because we can’t necessarily buy the talent to help fix our problems,” Cooper said.
“We certainly saw that on Saturday night and obviously from the emotion around us that might have helped play a part, but we can’t play just on emotion every week. They have to understand why we were successful last year and if they want to be successful this year, we need to build on that.
“The hard, gritty stuff, the one percenters, the hustle stats and all the little things that not everyone sees on the stat sheet are the areas we have to win. I feel like we did that especially on Saturday night.”
It wouldn’t be out of place to say that Cougars import Courtney Alexander II had a rough first three quarters, but he came out inspired in the last seven minutes of the contest.
He played like he just refused to let Cockburn lose and Cooper is hoping he can build on that now on the back of the tone set earlier in the game by 301-game captain Field.
“I knew early on from Gav’s output that he certainly wasn’t going to let us lose and that’s why he performed the way he did, and that’s why Gav is Gav,” Cooper said.
“But Courtney’s last seven minutes were enormous and they changed the game. That’s not taking anything away from anyone else, but he rebounded the ball well, he passed the ball well, he made foul shots under pressure.
“He did everything that we want him to do, and to be honest he did everything that he wants to do. He’s struggling to find his groove and he knows that, and he knows he is under performing, but I’m hoping that he’ll be able to build on that last seven minutes now and keep rolling forward.”