DANDENONG Rangers had their first true challenge to retain the WNBL championship from Bendigo Spirit on Saturday night.
The Rangers went down 70-58 to the Spirit at Dandenong Stadium in their first loss since January.
The reigning WNBL champion was pressured into poor shots and out-hustled in a performance that left coach Mark Wright deeply disappointed in his side.
The Rangers shot just 32 per cent from the field, made no three-pointers and shot just 60 per cent from the free-throw line.
"You can put all that down to Bendigo. These bad nights don't happen by accident," he said. "All kudos to them for their defensive pressure."
With Opals star Jenna O'Hea back in the line-up after returning from the WNBL midweek, the Rangers looked in control from the start as O'Hea, Kath Macleod and Tegan Cunningham found ways to score.
But it wasn't until the second term that the Rangers created a gap, taking a 12-point lead midway through the term behind some hot shooting from Cunningham and Macleod, who had double-figure tallies by half-time.
Yet the Spirit wouldn't let the Rangers push them out of the contest, with a fightback late in the term leaving them just seven points down at the main change with centre Gabrielle Richards and forward Chelsea Aubry scoring 14 and 13 points as only three Spirit players scored for the half.
After half-time it was all Bendigo as veteran guard Kristi Harrower scored a staggering 24 points in the second half to lead her side to victory.
O'Hea was helped off the court during the third quarter after her head struck a Spirit player's leg. She was cleared by team medical staff to return to the court, starting on the court in the fourth quarter.
Wright said Harrower's performance was amazing and had proven decisive.
He also said the Rangers had to do a much better job chasing down loose balls and pulling in rebounds as the Spirit were able to get several second chances at scoring after grabbing offensive rebounds.
Macleod led the Rangers with 18 points, Cunningham chipped in with 11 and Carley Mijovic with seven points.
The Rangers will be after a better showing against West Coast Waves at Dandenong at 4pm this Sunday.