As Durham Palatinates walked out at the Birmingham Arena on Sunday 26 January to face Sevenoaks Suns in the final of the Women’s British Basketball League (WBBL) Cup, they did so with a vague sense of familiarity.
They had played Sevenoaks just eight days previously and in March last year, they had lost to Leicester Riders in the WBBL’s other knockout competition, the Trophy.
Those matches both ended in narrow defeat and, unfortunately, it was a similar tale in Birmingham. Although guard Betsy MacDonald doubled the previous record for triples in a Cup final with six, a last-dash flurry from Sevenoaks’ Janice Monakana secured a 76-64 victory for her side.
“There were positive moments in the Cup final that we can take with us and use as momentum going forward as well as moments we can learn from,” MacDonald was keen to emphasise. “It was a fun experience playing in such a nice arena with an exciting atmosphere.”
Coach Lee Davie, who oversees all aspects of the sport at Durham University as its Head of Basketball, echoed the same sentiment.
“It was tough to take as we know it wasn’t our best overall performance and we felt had more to give on that day. That being said, the first five-and-a-half minutes of the fourth quarter really showed us that we have what it takes to beat Sevenoaks, but we need to play to that level for 40 minutes.”
Another positive from his side’s run to the final was that it also yielded one of their best performances in recent seasons when they defeated Sheffield Hatters 79-72.
“The Cup semi-final was something special as we were going toe-to-toe with the winningest franchise in women’s basketball and we were at their venue which is a very difficult place to play at.
“We were down 15 points with five minutes to go yet we ended up shutting them down offensively and went on one of the most dramatic scoring runs I’ve ever seen. We erased their lead and went on to win by seven points.”
Since joining from Team GB in 2013, Davie’s tenure has seen the club rebrand from the Durham Wildcats to the Durham Palatinates, consolidate its links with Durham University, and transition into an ever more professional outfit.
These developments have come as part of a wider University strategy to become the best in the UK for those who wish to balance team sports with elite academic study. As is also the case with DU rugby and football, the Palatinates’ recruitment has been bolstered by its ability to offer sport scholarships at both undergraduate and postgraduate level.
Competing in the WBBL is just one aspect of the women’s basketball programme at Durham as almost all of those who play in the competition also play for the University in British University and Collegiate Sport (BUCS) matches.
It is therefore unsurprising that being a Palatinate comes with substantial time requirements, something which MacDonald − an American masters student who played for Southern Connecticut State University as an undergraduate − pointed out.
“Being able to study as well as play basketball is a great opportunity and I am extremely appreciative to be in Durham doing both. It does have it’s challenges with some busy days, but I feel accomplished getting into a routine and using my time efficiently.
“It’s all about time management and making the most of the day, whether that’s studying in the library after class or going the court to practice and putting extra shots up.”
For Davie, these pressure and time requirements make his role all the more rewarding.
“I love the challenge of having to perform 250 to 300 times a year throughout all the practices and all the games both in BUCS and WBBL. In BUCS one loss can be the difference between being first and third and within WBBL you’re trying to be number one, so every game is also must-win.
“There’s 12 hours a week of performance analysis for scouting going into games and also evaluating how well we did in comparison to the scouting report we had going into the game.
“On gamedays there are on average 95 possessions per team and we have to track who we have on the floor versus who our opponents have on the floor, what style of play fits best with who we currently have playing, and whether we need to make subs or change tactics to maximise personnel.”
There is no sign of that pressure relenting any time soon. Davie and MacDonald both have a place in the WBBL Trophy final in their sights, and the Palatinates will play Nottingham in the semi-finals of that competition on Saturday 15 February.
One thing that stands this Durham team in good stead for that match is their team spirit, something which is clear for all to see.
“I can’t say enough positive things about this team,” MacDonald stressed. “I am so thankful to have the opportunity to play with every one of my teammates.
“I think a defining characteristic is our unselfishness as a whole as well as our quickness. We look to share the ball and get out in transition. We play at our best when we are enjoying ourselves on the court and sharing the ball, that’s when we are the most fun to watch!
“I think a fitting quote from Kobe Bryant, one of the greatest players to ever play the game, is ‘everything negative − pressure, challenges − is all an opportunity for me to rise’, and that is the mindset of our team.”