By Russell Bennett
It’s hard to imagine victory ever tasting sweeter than it did for the Vic Country girls at the Under-18 national basketball championships in Townsville on the weekend, and Pakenham’s Jaz Shelley played a pivotal part in the drought-breaking triumph.
Vic Country hadn’t won an Under-18 championship since 2000, and Shelley’s side picked one hell of a way to change that – winning by the narrowest of margins, 60-59, over South Australia Metro in an absolute thriller.
The Victorians were ahead by nine points with less than four minutes remaining in the contest before South Australia responded with an 8-0 run courtesy of Samantha Simons (15 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists) and Zoe Walker-Roberts.
There were no easy shots allowed by either side over the final two minutes, and Vic Country was held scoreless for the final four minutes and 33 seconds, but somehow, through sheer grit and determination, the Vics hung on for dear life to claim gold.
Shelley described the win as one of the best she’s been involved in – placing it just behind Australia’s Under-17 world championship win over the powerhouse United States last year.
“The most special thing about it was that we made history,” said Shelley of the Vic Country win, in which she finished with 13 points and 5 boards.
“It’s a pretty surreal feeling.”
Shelley said Vic Country’s performances in the games leading up to the decider were particularly strong, but the tension and cutthroat pressure of a national championship game had an impact on both teams.
“It just came down to who wanted it more,” she said.
Remarkably, Shelley had a cyst removed from her eyelid just before Vic Country’s quarter-final. It had been affecting her vision, and causing plenty of discomfort.
But that has faded into the background with the national title win.
“Most of us had been together as a group for four years, and this was our last chance to win together,” Shelley said.
“We had each other’s backs and we were just so determined to win.”
Speaking after the win, Vic Country coach Gerard Hillier could barely contain his joy at the result, and the performance from his side.
“We keep saying as a team that they’re country tough,” he said.
“There’s a lot of adversity going against them already – just to get to trainings and games and participate in these events – and it certainly toughens them up.
“They’ve shown that this week at this event and it’s a credit to them.
“We’re so happy for the players, managers and coaches from Vic Country who weren’t lucky enough to medal and this is for them as well – Vic Country is a great program and I’m really happy for all of them.”
Next up for Shelley is the tryouts for Australia’s Under-19 world championship team, which will compete in Italy mid-year.