The Sunshine Coast Lighting have secured their second consecutive Suncorp Super Netball grand final appearance after steamrolling over an emotional Giants outfit in the preliminary final.
The game never looked in doubt for the Lightning, even as momentum swung throughout the match. Calm heads and spectacular defence from Karla Pretorius saw the reigning premiers put forth a convincing 60-minute performance which will no doubt have the West Coast Fever scrambling to create defensive strategies to combat the in-form Lightning.
The game started well for the Giants as they got out to a three-goal lead: their largest lead of the match. The home side knew that the key to undoing the Lightning was to block Steph Wood’s entrance into the circle, so that is what they did. Their smothering of the transverse line caused congestion and forced the Lighting to reset the ball to the centre.
But, Maddy McAuliffe saw over the mess and got herself a goal assist by launching the ball long to Caitlin Bassett who was alone under the post.
Geva Mentor started the game well, getting her hand to a few deflections. Her switch in defence with Pretorius, which allowed Mentor to mark Jo Harten, worked wonders as the two English internationals were an even match. Mentor forced Harten to work harder for prime shooting position.
Mentor also applied the same strategy as she did on Romelda Aiken last week: pushing the goalers to the top of the circle. Unfortunately for, the goalkeeper, it didn’t work as well this week as Harten didn’t mind putting up the mid to long bombs.
Harten was also putting on a show out of the circle. In a play of the season contender, Harten from up near the transverse line flicked the ball backwards and over her head, into the hands of Susan Pettitt who was on the drive.
Pettitt had one of her worst performances of the 2018 season. She was unable to get in a great shooting position, and when she did take a shot, she looked uncomfortable.
The cause of the bad form is unclear. It may have been the work which Pretorius was doing or the emotional weight of knowing this may be her last national league game. Regardless, the result from her 26 minutes of play was a meagre 67% shooting accuracy, three feeds, two goals assists and two turnovers.
A kerfuffle with the blood rule probably didn’t help either. Pettitt, thinking she was doing the umpires a favour, pointed out that Pretorius had blood on her knee. Pretorius was sent from the court to be patched up, and Erena Mikaere was introduced in her place.
But, Pettitt unknowingly had blood on the back of her thigh. She attempted to wipe the blood off with a bit of spit and her hand but umpire, Michelle Phippard, wasn’t having it, forcing Pettitt off the court to have the blood cleaned off.
The confusion saw Kristina Brice make a cameo and score one goal. The switch only lasted one-minute, during which Pettitt paced the sideline signalling to her teammates to call time so she could re-enter the fray. But when she did, she was rattled.
The Lightning wasn’t having it all their way in their circle either. They were forced into too many passes which allowed Bec Bulley, Sam Poolman and Serena Guthrie opportunities to get their hands to gains.
The second quarter saw Kristiana Manu’a enter the game at goalkeeper for the Giants. Manu’a gives away 11cm in height to Bassett but makes up for it in her ability to read the play and get in front position for the high ball. This is what she did early in her time on court, which caused the Lightning’s feeders to rethink their passes.
Guthrie was also causing headaches for the Lightning early in the second quarter. Her ability to tip the pass and then chase down the loose ball saw her get three pickups and one gain for the quarter. One such occasion resulted in a converted turnover which, again, got the Giants three goals ahead.
The Lightning halted this run by calling the first time-out of the game. The tactic worked as the defensive unit began to lift. The first gain came when Pretorius picked Pettitt’s pocket on circle edge. But the Lighting’s transition was made difficult by the walls of orange.
Just as the ball got down to their attack end, it was sent back up the other by Jamie-Lee Price, only to return, for a second attempt, thanks to Pretorius.
The Giants were working hard to extend their lead, but their efforts saw them begin to overwork which caused them to run on top of each other. This was made evident when three of their senior players all went for the ball causing a fumble which allowed the visitors to catch-up.
Julie Fitzgerald began searching for answers and, during a time-out, introduce Kiera Austin in at goal attack. The 20-year-old has had limited court time this season, and when she has taken the court, it was at wing attack.
But, Austin wasn’t fazed by the weight of the game, nor the calibre of her opposition as she potted 12 goals at 75% in her 36 minutes of court time. The risky move by Fitzgerald momentarily paid off, as Pretorius took some time to work out Austin’s game.
The intensity lifted in the Lightning circle in the third term. Wood had more of an impact as Bassett began to leave the circle to create space for her goaling partner. Wood’s hard drive left Bulley in chase-mode for much of the period.
Manu’a was also beginning to get inside Bassett’s head. The usually calm goal shooter was pegged for two offensive contacts for using her elbow to create space.
The Giants began to play laboriously as the Lightning had arms over every ball and made no passage of play easy for their hosts.
Kim Green and Guthrie were using the angles well in the circle as they worked the ball around for Harten and Austin. But Pretorius’ off the ball work was making it hard for the feeders to predict where to place the ball.
Green’s usually deceptive ball movement was no match for Pretorius’ reflexes as she was able to get her hand low to the bounce pass or around her opposition to deflect to Mentor.
By the end of the third quarter, the Giants looked deflated as the Lightning gained momentum with slick movement and clever ball work.
The Giants lifted at the start of the fourth quarter. They put more arms-over pressure during the Lightning’s first and second phase play, which began to wear down the Lightning attack five-minutes into the term.
Guthrie began to pick up Kelsey Browne off the centre pass as Guthrie was a better match for Browne’s speed than Price. This left Laura Scherian with a heavier feeding role. Scherian is less reliable on the feed than Browne, and Manu’a was able to exploit this by forcing the centre into turnovers.
After five unanswered Giant goals, the Lightning called another time-out. The strategic use of the time-out worked again as the Lightning came out the better team.
They tightened their defensive effort, playing on the body more and left no pass uncontested. Maddy McAuliffe, who went missing in the middle of the game, began to apply excess pressure to Austin when she was out of the circle. This pressure forced Austin to overcook several passes into Harten.
Communication in the Giants’ defence end began to lapse as Guthrie was overworking and leaving Price confused as to who to defend.
With under two minutes left in play Pettitt, who was still on the sidelines, looked to Fitzgerald begging her coach to allow her to re-enter the game. Mercy came when Harten called a timeout with 70-seconds to go signalling for her teammate to take her place.
Somehow, through tears, Pettitt was able to sink goal 49 for the Giants – the last goal of her netball career. But it wasn’t enough as the Lightning took the game by nine goals.
After the game, players gave a guard of honour to Pettitt and Guthrie. Pettitt is retiring from netball as the player who holds the most national league caps with 232. Guthrie announced last week that she would be returning to England at the end of the season. No word yet on which team she will play for next year.
In a surprise to some, Bec Bulley also announced that this preliminary final was also the last game of her career. She thanked friends, family and fans for their support over the years.
Sunshine Coast Lightning will now make the long-haul over to Perth to take on the West Coast Fever next Sunday in the 2018 Suncorp Super Netball grand final.
Sunshine Coast Lightning 59 def Giants 50
(15-15, 27-26, 43-37, 59-50)
Player of the Match: Karla Pretorius (Sunshine Coast Lightning)
Crowd: Approx. 5,000 at Qudos Bank Arena
Sunshine Coast Lightning
Bassett 40/43 93%
Wood 19/23 83%
Harten 28/32 88%
Pettitt 9/15 60%
Brice 1/1 100%
Austin 12/16 75%
Karla Pretorius (Lightning) 7
Geva Mentor (Lightning) 3
Kim Green (Giants) 20
Steph Wood (Lightning) 20
Serena Guthrie (Giants) 17
Jo Harten (Giants) 6
Caitlin Bassett (Lightning) 3
Karla Pretorius (Lightning) 3
Kristiana Manu’a (Giants) 2
Karla Pretorius (Lightning) 13
Kristiana Manu’a (Giants) 5
Serena Guthrie (Giants) 3
Geva Mentor (Lightning) 3
Starting line ups
GS Susan Pettitt
GA Jo Harten
WA Kim Green
C Serena Guthrie
WD Jamie-Lee Price
GD Bec Bulley
GK Sam Poolman
Changes: Q1 GS Brice then Pettitt (blood rule), Q2 GK Manu’a, GA Austin, GS Harten, Q4 GS Pettitt.
Sunshine Coast Lightning
GS Caitlin Bassett
GA Steph Wood
WA Kelsey Browne
C Laura Scherian
WD Madeline McAuliffe
GD Karla Pretorius
GK Geva Mentor
Changes: Q1 GD Mikaere, then Pretorius (blood rule).
Umpires: Michelle Phippard and Josh Bowring
Bec Bulley with daughter Indie. Photo: May Bailey.
Report: Katrina Nissen
Photos: May Bailey