2 Dec 2020

Otago Basketball excels during tough year

6:15 am on 2 December 2020

The fallout from Covid-19 hit some sports hard but for Otago Basketball a challenging year presented opportunities for their players to make history.

Otago Gold Rush in 18in18 basketball competition

The Otago Gold Rush competing in the NBL 18in18. Photo: Richard Connelly

With the NBL Showdown title already in their trophy cabinet Otago Basketball could lock away another national title this weekend in a disrupted season.

Otago Basketball general manager Peter Drew said the association had a long-term focus on putting in place a strong female development programme from grassroots to their top women's team the Otago Gold Rush.

The dedication was already evident at the top end as the Gold Rush compete in the women's national basketball competition 18in18 which wraps up on Sunday.

"Apart from the six weeks of lockdown the Gold Rush have been training every week since they started back in February, really working hard, so they're really just starting to hit their straps now and we're starting to see some of that hard work come through," Drew said.

"They had a pre-season that is 269 days long, the longest pre-season in history, and for most of that time they didn't know whether they would get to play a game in 2020.

"We just took the approach of whether we are playing games in 2020 or not we're going to work really hard for the whole year and get everything we can out of the year and on the back of that it's really helped our preparation for going into this 18in18 because the players are extremely fit and I think people can see that on the court."

The Gold Rush were the first side to win back-to-back games in the 18in18 competition.

The side is captained by Bronwyn Kjestrup, who along with the majority of her teammates and players from Capital Swish and Canterbury Wildcats fly in and fly out of Auckland for games during the current 18-day tournament.

When she is not playing basketball Kjestrup is working as a doctor at Dunedin hospital and returns to the wards between games after graduating from Otago University medical school last year.

However as Kjestrup and other members of the Gold Rush have to split their focus between basketball and another job, Tall Fern Zoe Richards has chosen to take a break from her work in early childhood education to concentrate on hoops.

Richards was in her senior year of college in America but arrived back in New Zealand in March and linked up again with side she had been playing for since she was at high school.

"There's a few of us that we've been playing together for a while but there's also been quite a few new faces this year, so it's great for our programme to be having new players come in and for them to see what the competition's like," Richards said.

Teenager Hannah Matehaere is an example of the young talent the region as able to give an opportunity during the 18in18.

The Otago Girls' High School student played for the Gold Rush in the last round after making a comeback from an ACL injury.

Richards said the side was aiming to secure a spot in the playoffs which start on Friday and emulate their male counterparts and go all the way to take the title.

"We've been playing really good the last few games, yet I still don't believe we've reached our full potential so that's really encouraging," Richards said.

"It'll be great if we can do the same as the men's, we've worked so hard and so we would really like to be able to bring home two championships for Otago."

The first piece of silverware from the NBL was unexpected for Otago Basketball.

"The opportunity for the Otago Nuggets to play in the NBL just fell into our lap because of Covid," Drew said.

Nuggets celebrate after their win during the NZNBL grand final match.

Otago Nuggets win first National Basketball League title. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The original plan was for the Nuggets was to try to make their comeback to the NBL in 2021 but Drew said Basketball New Zealand's revamped NBL Showdown competition over six weeks in Auckland earlier in the year gave the Nuggets "an opportunity out of the blue".

"It was an amazing story with the Nuggets having been out of the league for five or six years and then suddenly back in it and then they win it for the first time ever," he said.

The unlikely success came in part from pairing local talent with experienced players picked up in the competition's unique draft.

Otago Nuggets Jarrod Kenny during the NZNBL grand final match between the Manawatu Jets and the Otago Nuggets.

Otago Nuggets' Jarrod Kenny during the NZNBL grand final match against the Manawatu Jets. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

"We had a very good group of local players who had won a national under-19 title several years ago, those players had never had the opportunity to play in the NBL.

"Those players were so hungry for success because they'd never had the opportunity to play NBL and they were absolutely desperate and just giving it everything because it was their one shot at it, so it was a combination of factors that came together."

"Otago has always produced strong players over the years but having the Nuggets back, winning the NBL this year had an amazing positive effect across the whole region and then having them back hopefully in the NBL next year just provides inspiration for youngsters coming through."

Drew said for the first time this year the women's NBL was on par with the men's competition.

"What this event is doing for women's basketball across New Zealand and in Otago is absolutely massive and it's a game changer," he said.

Discussions are taking place now about what the future format of the women's competition will look like.

"What's the best format moving forward, is the 18in18 sustainable to do that sort of format again, these are the discussions that we are having at the moment as to whether we go back to a more traditional format of having teams play home and away over the longer period.

"But the 18in18 format or having all teams coming together for a concentrated period of time like that it definitely puts a big spotlight on to it and really helps to promote the sport so we'll see where it goes in the future."