THE Newcastle Hunters believe semi-final opponents Hornsby Spiders did them a favour by handing them their first loss of the Waratah Basketball League women's season four weeks ago.
Newcastle took a 19-0 win-loss record to the Brickpit on July 20 but the Spiders won 80-63 to end the Hunters' unbeaten run while making amends for a 72-61 loss at Broadmeadow on April 27.
The stakes will be much higher when the teams meet again at Breakers Indoor Sports Stadium at Terrigal at 1pm on Saturday. The winners will progress to a grand final against Canberra or Norths at the same venue at 1:30pm on Sunday, but the season will be over for the losers.
Hornsby, who finished fourth at the end of the regular season, qualified for the semi-final by beating fifth-placed Bankstown 91-67 in an elimination play-off at the Brickpit last Saturday.
Newcastle coach Shannon Seebohm, who will leave next week to take up the head coaching job at Women's National Basketball League club Townsville Fire, said the Hunters had learnt some valuable lessons from their loss to the Spiders.
"Hornsby are a formidable opponent. They're a team laden with WNBL level talent and experience, and we know we need to be at our best to beat them," said Seebohm, who coached the Spiders to the Waratah League championship in 2014.
"They're one of only two teams to beat us this year, and they were the first team to beat us this year, but it couldn't have come at a better time because it definitely rekindled a spark in our group.
"I've seen a massive improvement in our level of play since then, especially in the past two weeks, and I feel like this is the first time all year that we're showing signs of playing to our full potential."
In their preparation for the semi-final, the Hunters have paid particular attention to four Hornsby players who have been involved in the Sydney Uni Flames' WNBL or SEABL programs.
Shanae Greaves, who has averaged 15 points a game this season, Maddie O'Hehir (12.5) and Sarah Graham (12.1) loom as Hornsby's main threats, and Serika Shillingsworth has averaged 18.5 points a game in their two meetings with Newcastle this season - double her season average of 9.8.
"They hurt us in transition last time, and we didn't bring anywhere near the focus and intensity on defence that we'll need to bring on Saturday," Seebohm said.
"But our defensive effort has improved significantly since then against Canberra, who we held to 58 in regulation before losing in overtime, Bankstown, who we held to 45, and American Division One college team Cal Poly, who we held to 46.
"Hornsby will be tough so to give ourselves the best possible chance, we need to challenge them on every possession, we have to do a good job executing our offence, and we have to make our shots."
The 80 points Newcastle conceded against Hornsby last month was by far the most they have given up in any game all season.
Averaging only 53 points a game against, Newcastle boasted the league's No.1 rated defence, and their 78 points a game in scoring was second behind Canberra (78.4).
Three Newcastle players - Jaimee Seebohm, Hannah Young and Lara McSpadden - received individual recognition on Thursday when they were named in the Waratah League All-Star Five alongside league MVP Keely Froling (Canberra) and Sutherland guard Shyla Heal.
McSpadden, who helped Australia's Emerging Opals win the World University Games in Naples last month, was acknowledged earlier in the week as the Waratah League's youth player of the year.
Seebohm, Newcastle's captain, averaged 12.4 points, 8.8 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 1.7 steals a game this season, and McSpadden averaged 16.1 points and 7.2 rebounds.
Young averaged 14.6 points and 6.9 rebounds a game, and is one of three Hunters in the top five in the league in three-point shooting percentages.
Her 41.67% success rate is second behind team-mate Mikaela Dombkins (50%) and slightly ahead of fifth-ranked Jasmin Howe, who has connected at 39.1% from behind the arc this season while averaging 15.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists a game.
Newcastle's youth league women's team are also involved in a semi-final on Saturday, taking on Manly Warringah Sea Eagles at Terrigal at 9:30am.