By Jamie Thomas
On the eve of their first WBBL Cup Final, one of the stars of Jesper Sandberg’s Leicester Riders says that the WBBL Championship leaders are excited to be tested as they come up against the Cup holders – and fierce rivals – Sevenoaks Suns on Friday night live on Sky Sports.
Back in the WBBL after a stint playing in the United States at the University of Oregon, the Riders’ Holly Winterburn is clearly very excited for the final and confident in her team that they can lift the Cup in victory when it’s all said and done.
“It has been a struggle just to play a normal game this season, having no guarantee we’re going to play at the weekend, so to have a final to look forward to against Sevenoaks where somebody is going to win a trophy is really exciting.
“When I was here at Leicester previously [before attending University of Oregon] I would dread playing Sevenoaks personally because they’re such a hard team to play against, but obviously since then and with my time at Oregon and the experiences I had there, I’m excited to play them this time and confident in the team that we can get the job done.
“I’m excited to be tested and to see how we react.”
“Coming back to the WBBL … has just allowed me to enjoy the game more.”
Already a two-time WBBL Young Player of the Year before embarking on her adventure to the US, Winterburn’s return over the summer was naturally met with much fanfare, as one of the country’s premier talents coming home to ply her trade with a successful side.
Having spoken over the summer about how excited she was to play in the place she says made her who she is today, the 20-year-old admitted in our conversation with her that she’s been able to enjoy the game more in the WBBL and that it’s given her a new perspective.
“Coming back to the WBBL has allowed me to see basketball in a different way to what I maybe did when I was here previously. My whole life before that was about being the best I could be, no matter what, I just wanted to do what was best for me.
“Looking back, I don’t think that allowed me to enjoy the game as much as I could have or should have, so I think coming back to the WBBL and having a big role in the team, facilitating our play more – which is a different role to what I’m used to – has just allowed me to enjoy the game more.
“My whole life isn’t basketball anymore in that sense, because now I’m taking time to study something that I really enjoy, I’ve got a lot of other things I’m doing that don’t involve basketball, and being here in the WBBL has allowed me to find that balance, which is really important.”
“I’m not putting too much pressure on myself.”
In WBBL Cup action this season Winterburn is not far off averaging a triple-double, with her 11.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 7.3 assists in per game totals making for some remarkable reading, especially when considering that the young guard is adapting to a different role to the one she had been used to previously.
Illustrating just one of the signs of what makes her such a great talent though, the Riders youngster is openly willing to critique her strengths and weaknesses as she discusses finding her identity as a player.
“I’m pleased with how I’ve performed this season in some ways but not in others. I feel like I can definitely be more focussed in the games – I feel like it has taken me a bit longer than I’d like to find my rhythm sometimes – but I think the situation we’re in plays a part in that a bit.
“I’m quite happy with how I’m performing, I’m not too mad about it, and I have to remember that I’m learning a new role as a lead guard so I’m just trying to take it as it comes. I’m not putting too much pressure on myself and just focussing on getting the win – I’ll find the identity I want to have as a player more in the future.
“We started training back in August and were doing just that for a long time with no games to look forward to, so it was hard to put all those hours in with no reward at the end of it, and it has been a challenging season. Lockdown changed our mindset, I think, with elite sport allowed to continue, and helped us realise how lucky we are and how we have to make the most of this.”
“They’re such a solid unit … they’re so hard to break down.”
Such has been the success of the Riders’ opponents, the Sevenoaks Suns, over recent years, teams almost expect that if they’re going to win any competition in the WBBL then they’re going to have to go through Len Busch’s side to get there, and that’s the challenge Leicester face on Friday night.
Winterburn and her teammates are very much up for the challenge, but she very respectful of the Suns’ qualities, though, and discusses what it would mean to win the final after a trying season so far.
“They’re a very tough team to come up against. You never really see them scrambling, you never see them arguing amongst themselves – they’re such a solid unit in many ways and they’re so hard to break down, which I think is their biggest strength. Whether it be technically, tactically or physically, we have to find a way to break them down.
“I think it is great that Sky Sports are taking such an interest in British basketball – it can only grow our game and I think we need to continue to support that in any way we can. “To win the final … we’ve been training since August and it has just been so long, so tough, and this is our first chance to be rewarded for it all and our hard work. Everybody wants to win a final – we’ll give it our best shot and hopefully we come out on top.”
The WBBL Cup Final takes place LIVE on Sky Sports Arena & YouTube, Friday 12 February, with coverage commencing at 5:00pm.