Fourth position on the ladder was up for grabs for either Sunshine Coast Lightning and Queensland Firebirds, but not both.
It certainly wasn’t a polished game, with possession changing 40 times throughout the 60-minute tussle. In the end, it was the Lightning who walked away with the win, but the Firebirds managed to maintain their top four spot by winning the first two quarters.
From the first whistle, it was evident the hit-out was going to be a defensive one. Both teams seemed to have the same strategy: tightly mark the shooters and let the goal attacks shoulder the shooting burden.
The strategy may have been well intended, but Steph Wood and Gretel Tippett were more than up to the task. Both Diamond’s squad members shot 24 goals, with Wood at 89% and Tippett at 96%.
The first victim of the tight body defence was Caitlin Bassett. The Lightning shooter was forced to put up her first shot from long-range. She didn’t look comfortable from the moment the ball entered her hands, and it resulted in a missed goal with the rebound being knocked out by Firebirds’ rookie, Tara Hinchliffe.
The connection and vision between Wood and Bassett was on-point throughout the game with the goal attack willing to feed her shooter from well outside the circle. By contrast, the Firebirds were forced to play a shorter style of game.
The Firebirds looked in control early on, with the one-two play between Romelda Aiken and Tippett keeping the Lightning defenders heads spinning. This interplay saw Tippett sink eight goals in the first quarter – one more than Aiken.
Caitlyn Nevins was also having a strong start to the game. Despite the extra attention being paid to Aiken, Nevins showed that she was willing to feed her goal shooter, putting her faith in Aiken’s ability to grab any high ball.
The second term began with a Wood showing her defensive talent on the transverse line. The Lightning’s second phase transition was roasting. Laura Scherian and Kelsey Browne, wasted no time in getting to circle edge, causing Gabi Simpson to let out an exacerbated ‘argh’ as she was caught flat-footed.
It was a quiet game for the usually flamboyant Simpson, which is a nod to how well Browne has developed over this season. In the first half, Browne was able to take 15 centre pass receives, and feed her shooters 10 times. Simpson stats look very lacklustre for the first half. She had no gains, deflections or intercepts. But she was also economical, in that she had no obstructions and only three contacts.
The tough afternoon continued for the Firebirds with a pushed pass to Mahalia Cassidy flying way over target. Again the Lightning were quick to transition the ball to their scoring circle. After the game, Steph Wood confirmed that quick and accurate transition play is something which the Lightning have been working on.
After three unanswered goals to start the second quarter, the Firebirds were forced to call a time-out to regroup.
When play recommenced, Nevins took charge of the attacking line’s defence by dictating to Cassidy and Tippett where she wanted them. For her part, Nevins was quick to get off the line and put arms-over pressure on the passes throughout the centre third.
In attack, the Firebirds began to play too predictably. Karla Pretorius, who up until the back end of the first half was having a fairly quiet game, got a crucial deflection off an easily read pass. This mini-win saw Pretorius spark-up and inject herself harder into the out of circle defence. She began to block Tippett’s entrance into the circle, and also cover Cassidy’s feeds.
A switch of players between Simpson and Cassidy allowed the Firebirds’ centre to be in prime position to scuffle for the ball with Kelsey Browne in the Lighting’s goal third. Cassidy won possession, and the Firebirds were away in transition.
However, their passage through the midcourt was arduous. The Lightning forced the ball back on many occasions, with the Firebirds obligated to back out and reoffer for the ball. Eventually, a Tippett roll-off allowed the ball to cross the transverse where its entrance into the circle was surprisingly easy. A large split and finish from Tippett rewarded the visitor’s patience.
The battle was then on for the second quarter bonus point. The Lightning were in chase mode, sitting one goal behind with 20 seconds to go. Despite several leads for each pass, purple pride won the point in the end.
There was drama before the first whistle was blown at the start of the third term. A disagreement between Simpson and the umpires over who was to take the centre pass saw the umpires concede defeat as Marc Henning sheepishly apologised for getting it wrong. Simpson’s joy in this win was almost amusing.
The Lightning defence reached new heights this term, particularly in the circle. Neither Aiken nor Tippett were comfortable with the positions which were available to them, thanks to Geva Mentor and Pretorius blocking the space under the post.
The battle between Mentor and Aiken was becoming physical. Both players were shoving and throwing shady elbows. Aiken was the first to allow her emotions to boil over.
After giving up possession thanks to a held-ball, Aiken knocked the ball out of Mentor’s hands (whether it was accidental or deliberate is unknown). The umpire read it as deliberate and advanced the penalty, much to the dismay of Aiken.
The goal scored off Aiken’s turnover was the fifth a row for the Lightning, which forced the Firebirds to call another timeout.
On resumption the Firebirds’ captain lead from the front, knocking a deflection off to Tippett. As they moved into transition, Simpson’s calls of “settle” could be heard over the roar of the passionate Sunshine Coast crowd.
For a time, the Firebirds looked to have regained their defensive structure. All four defenders pushed the Lightning attack out wide, forcing passes to be launched across court.
The Lightning were struck a blow when Maddy McAuliffe rolled her ankle as she ran into Nevins who had stopped abruptly on the circle edge. Her hasty exit from the court cleared the way for Jacqui Russell to enter the game.
Though Russell matched Nevins for speed better than McAuliffe, she was not as effective in disrupting Nevins’ feeds from circle edge.
The final term was electric. The Firebirds came out hot-headed and full of desperation for the win. The Lighting were divergent and appeared to be in more control than their Queensland counterparts.
Again, Wood kicked off the quarter with a transverse line intercept. This time she had the satisfaction of finishing her own play.
As the quarter rolled on, momentum swung. Just when the Lightning thought they may have the win, the Firebirds showed why they are the comeback queens.
With three minutes to go the Lightning were up by two. The win looked out of reach as the Lightning played with patience and precision.
Then the let-off came: a short pass between Scherian and Wood. As the ball sailed through the Firebirds’ ring, Wood’s hands went to her head as she mouth “my god”, knowing that the Firebirds centre pass, and possible equaliser, was to follow.
The scores were locked with 20 seconds to play. The Lightning took their centre pass, this time playing with urgency. The worked to ball around the walls of purple pressure. They knew they had the time and continually reoffered. Eventually, they found Bassett.
The Diamond’s captain wasn’t daunted by the pressure of winning the game, as she has been in the position plenty of times before. And, in her 175th national league game, she basked in the satisfaction of getting her team over the line with only three seconds to go.
After two intense weeks of games the Lightning may reach a tipping point next week, as they head west to face the Fever. The games also don’t get easier for the Firebirds as they face the Melbourne Vixens on the Gold Coast.
Sunshine Coast Lightning 58 def Queensland Firebirds 57
(14-15, 27-29, 43-42, 58-57)
Player of the Match: Steph Wood (Sunshine Coast Lightning)
Crowd: 2,059 at USC Stadium
Sunshine Coast Lightning
Bassett 34/38 89%
Wood 24/27 89%
Aiken 33/39 85%
Tippett 24/25 96%
Karla Pretorius (Lightning) 3
Laura Geitz (Firebirds) 2
Caitlyn Nevins (Firebirds) 20
Kelsey Browne (Lightning) 17
Laura Scherian (Lightning) 17
Steph Wood (Lightning) 16
Geva Mentor (Lightning) 25
Karla Pretorius (Lightning) 23
Tara Hinchliffe (Firebirds) 15
Laura Geitz (Firebirds) 14
Sunshine Coast Lightning
GS Caitlin Bassett
GA Stephanie Wood
WA Kelsey Browne
C Laura Scherian
WD Madeline McAuliffe
GD Karla Pretorius
GK Geva Mentor
Changes: Q3 WD Jacqui Russell
GS Romelda Aiken
GA Gretel Tippett
WA Caitlyn Nevins
C Mahalia Cassidy
WD Gabi Simpson
GD Tara Hinchliffe
GK Laura Geitz
Changes: Q4 GD Kim Jenner then Tara Hinchliffe
Umpires: Michelle Phippard, Marc Henning.
A look at…
Key Matchup – Mentor vs Aiken
To say that this matchup was heated would be an understatement. Early on, Geva Mentor let Romelda Aiken know that she was willing to put her body on the line. Aiken did not appreciate the extra attention and reverted to her old ways of throwing her elbows around.
From the outset Mentor was contesting the aerial passes. The few tips which she gained began to play with Aiken’s head, causing the Jamaican to play with more aggression than we have seen this season.
The offensive contact which Aiken gave away in the first quarter was the beginning of her negative spiral. She ended the game with two offensive contacts and one defensive. She also argued with the umpire on several occasions which saw advancement of the ball for her dissent.
Mentor’s game was definitely calculated and controlled. Her stats weren’t spectacular (when compared to her usual specky intercepts, rebounds and gains), but she was effective. The third quarter was when she really made her impact. She was contesting for every ball and using her footwork to put doubt in the feeder’s minds.
While there are no easy games in Suncorp Super Netball, there are factors which can make a win easier to achieve. Obviously, one of the biggest influences is travel.
Of the two Queensland teams, the Firebirds have the best run into finals, as they play four of their next five games at home. Their only away game is in Round 12, which is the long haul over to Perth.
The Firebirds have not lost a home game so far this season and have only dropped four of a possible 12 quarters on their home court.
The Lightning’s draw is a lot tougher as their next five games see them jetting to Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne every other week.
The silver lining for the Lightning is that that they are playing the three teams which sit below them on the ladder in the coming weeks. But these teams, like the Lightning, have been showing some improvement recently, so the games could still be hotly contested.
If Lightning hope to make their move into the top four, they will need to play consistent, error-free netball, and show some the same courage they have played with over these past two rounds.
What they said
Gabi Simpson, Queensland Firebirds captain
There was a lot of momentum swings in this game …
“There really was. We always knew it was going to come down to that in this game. Lightning had a ripper last week which ended in a draw and it’s becoming common in Suncorp Super Netball.
What we did well in this first two quarters was, in those last few minutes we put our foot down and made sure that we pushed and finished off the quarters. But we lapsed in the third quarter.
The intensity was high. This Sunshine Coast crowd was loud and very energetic which is amazing to play in front of. There was a lot of pride on the line.”
What brought about that lapse?
“I think we just did a couple of small things. We held the ball or threw the ball away, which is a really bad mistake to make in Lightning territory and allowed them to steal momentum.”
What do you take out of this game, heading into the Vixens match next week?
“I think it’s the ends of our quarters that can give us some confidence. I think as a team, in those clutch moments, we were able to step up and take those first two quarters and those bonus points. And then to bring that last quarter back to a draw. I think that is the biggest thing we can take out of it.”
Steph Wood, Sunshine Coast Lightning
The Firebirds looked in control in the first half, what changed for the Lightning at half time?
“I think one of the things we really tried over the past few weeks is we probably tried to open the game up a little bit too early. I think we were guilty of that again today. We threw a few balls away that probably weren’t there. So at halftime we talked about making sure we maintained possession, especially when they have Romelda and Gretel down there. They don’t give up too much ball. So that was a big focus of ours in the second half.”
You really held your nerve in those couple of intense minutes
“Yeah we have been working on that in training. Noels (coach Noeline Taurua) has set up some game situations for us to work on at training. I think that really helped us today.”
It was an intense match, everything a derby should be
“Absolutely. The Firebirds will give it to you for 60 minutes. That’s why I love this game. They didn’t give an inch and they threw everything at us.”
How important was the win for the Lightning’s season?
“It is massive for us. Pretty much every game for us for the rest of the season is a must win. So, to get that is going to give us a little bit of confidence. I think we have definitely improved on the mistakes that we have made in previous rounds so, it was very important for us to get that win.”
What else did you like about the game, was there one thing in particular?
“I think in attack, we found out connections really well in the sense that we weren’t all on top of each other as we have been in previous games. I think that set us up for the win.”