Early last week Sunshine Coast Lightning captain Geva Mentor stoked the fuels of the Queensland rivalry between her side and the Queensland Firebirds when she said the Firebirds don’t respect her team.
The English Rose said that if the Lighting won the minor semi-final against their Queensland ‘big sister’, then the Firebirds would be forced to acknowledge them and their status as the superior team in Queensland.
While they may not have adamantly secured their superiority as the only in-form state team, thanks to a late surge by the Firebirds, the Lightning certainly lived up to the hype, forcing the game to be in doubt for the home side for much of their 60-minute contest.
The Firebirds started the game with smothering defence which forced a halt of play and held ball by Steph Wood. Firebirds captain Gabi Simpson praised the effort with an emphatic clap and resounding ‘yes!’.
The Firebirds transition play was slick and confident. Gretel Tippett and Caitlyn Nevins both left their opponent’s head spinning as they blistered to circle edge and easily fed Romelda Aiken.
However, the next play was a challenge for the home side. Like well-trained sheepdogs, the Lighting herded the Firebirds into the right pocket, forcing congestion and iffy sideline passes. Karla Pretorius got her hands to the ball but was unable to hold on to it, which eased the pressure for the home side and allowed them to reset.
Laura Geitz was keeping Caitlin Bassett contained for the first part of the quarter. The Diamond’s captain was being forced away from the post and, occasionally, out of the circle. Fortunately for her side, Wood was able to pick up the slack. Her strong baseline drive or pop to the top of the circle kept her side in touch.
By halfway through the first quarter, things began to fall apart for the Firebirds as the Lightning got out to a three-goal lead. This was mostly thanks to clever defence by Pretorius and Mentor. The pair began to attack the feeds from Mahalia Cassidy and Nevins, rather than trying to tackle Aiken in the air.
The Firebirds were then outmatched by the synergy between Wood and Kelsey Browne. The duo used angles, ball movement and look away passes to nullify the Firebirds arms-over pressure. Wood’s confidence to post, and ability to take shots from mid to long range allowed the Lightning to steal the lead and retain it for the remainder of the match.
When the Firebirds did gain a turnover, their transition was laboured by the congestion which the Lightning caused.
What was working for the home side was the screens which Tippett was putting on for Aiken. Tippett would situate herself between Aiken and one of the defenders, which allowed Cassidy and Nevins to pop the ball over her head and into the waiting arms of Aiken. The only worked for the first quarter though, as Mentor began to use her footwork and roll to get around the body in the later stages of the game.
In the second quarter the Firebirds began to play cautious netball. Their usual flare and urgency for the ball had gone missing. By contrast, the Lightning were playing with renewed enthusiasm and picked up the pace.
Wood became the playmaker for her side as she seemed to have every second touch of the ball. If it wasn’t her, it was Browne.
The battle between Cassidy and Laura Scherian lifted as both centres managed to win the ball back for the sides. Their intensity saw them battle for the ball with each other on many occasions resulting in them both spending time on the pine.
The ball-winning-ability of Mentor and Pretorius was playing havoc with Aiken and Tippett’s heads. Neither shooter looked comfortable and, as a result, they spent too much time passing the ball around the circle. The crowd was even urging them to take the shot.
Kim Jenner was having a tough battle on Wood. The youngster, who was so impactful last week, only got six gains for the game (three intercepts, two deflections and one rebound). Her speed was mostly effective off the centre where she picked up her two intercepts. However, for most of the match she was playing catch up, as Wood’s ability to swiftly change direction often left Jenner lagging behind play.
The third quarter went much the same way as the rest of the match. The Firebirds trudged along but were unable to close the gap; rather the Lightning managed to extend their lead to six by the end of the term.
The Firebirds back line looked lost. Too often they would come off their own player in an attempt to double-defend another, leaving someone unmarked. Or, they would be floating between two players, looking indecisive at options of who to defend. Before they could choose, the ball would be through the Lightning ring.
The switch of defence between Simpson and Cassidy, something which they have done all season efficiently, did not work as Cassidy was unable to keep up with Browne.
The fourth quarter saw the Firebirds regain their flare. Tippett was finally able to shake Pretorius and make an impact, outscoring Aiken nine-to-five for the term.
The Firebirds began to release the ball with confidence and trust. A five-to-one goal run by the Firebirds, and an advanced (persistent contact) ball thanks to Maddy McAuliffe, saw the home side draw level with five minutes left to play.
But the Lightning weathered the onslaught of goals by playing smart. Pretorius became the big ball winner, getting deflections when needed. The backup from McAuliffe and Mentor saw the Lightning get out to another three-goal lead.
The Firebirds undoing was their inability to win clean ball despite throwing themselves at everything. Or, consolidating on turnovers when it counted.
Much to the fan’s dismay, Aiken was, again, not confident to go to post and as the saying goes, too many passes out of the circle allowed the defenders to get their hands to the ball.
With one minute thirty left to play the Lightning had the centre and a three-goal lead. Geitz was strutting around the circle like a caged lion looking for any morsel that would dare come her way. She didn’t have to wait long.
Bassett ventured out of the circle and took the ball. Geitz put her under immense pressure as she tried to offload to Browne. The pass overshot its mark and went sailing into the sideline markers.
The Firebirds were quick to transition the ball and score. They then scored off their own centre and were now one turnover away from sending the game into overtime.
But, the Lightning wasn’t having it. With their return centre, they played with the ball, passing it around the middle third and drawing contacts from the desperate Firebirds players. The Lightning knew all they had to do was take the hits, and the clock would do the rest for them.
The Lightning now travel south to take on Giants Netball at Qudos Bank Arena in the preliminary final. The winner will then make the long haul over to Perth to face off against the West Coast Fever for the 2018 Suncorp Super Netball title.
Sunshine Coast Lighting 57 def Queensland Firebirds 56
(16-15, 31-27, 48-42, 57-56)
Player of the Match: Kelsey Browne (Sunshine Coast Lightning)
Crowd: 6,453 at Brisbane Entertainment Centre
Sunshine Coast Lightning
Bassett 37/39 95%
Wood 20/26 77%
Aiken 37/42 88%
Tippett 19/19 100%
Kim Jenner (Firebirds) 3
Kelsey Browne (Lightning) 1
Laura Geitz (Firebirds) 1
Caitlyn Nevins (Firebirds) 1
Karla Pretorius (Lightning) 1
Kelsey Browne (Lightning) 21
Caitlyn Nevins (Firebirds) 19
Gretel Tippett (Firebirds) 15
Kelsey Browne (Lightning) 37
Caitlyn Nevins (Firebirds) 37
Laura Scherian (Lightning) 24
Geva Mentor (Lightning) 32
Karla Pretorius (Lightning) 26
Laura Geitz (Firebirds) 18
GS Romelda Aiken
GA Gretel Tippett
WA Caitlyn Nevins
C Mahalia Cassidy
WD Gabi Simpson
GD Kim Jenner
GK Laura Geitz
Changes: Q3 Hinchliffe, then Jenner.
Sunshine Coast Lightning
GS Caitlin Bassett
GA Stephanie Wood
WA Kelsey Browne
C Laura Scherian
WD Madeline McAuliffe
GD Karla Pretorius
GK Geva Mentor
Umpires: Josh Bowring and Helen George
What they said
Geva Mentor, Sunshine Coast Lightning
Congratulations! What a final, it had everything.
“Oh, I know! We really built it up and obviously my comments earlier in the week really meant that we had to come out firing. It was a brutal game out there. Both teams were physical and the umpires weren’t letting much go.
“It was a tough contest and we knew that the Firebirds were going to come home strong at the end. They really stepped out hard in that last quarter and brought a bit more body. But, I am happy with how the girls responded and the smarts they played with.
“I have noticed a real shift in the Lightning girls this year and with the little things, particularly this week, in training. They are just taking the right sort of direction in terms of what they want to do during the week to get the best out on court, as well as those personal decisions. Then, come the weekend, and seeing these girls on court today, they really fired. They were connected, and their communication was great. And, this crowd was so loud, so it was hard to keep connected, and we had to find new ways.
“These are the sort of the performances that you learn a lot from. Sometimes you don’t appreciate how much that knowledge goes in the bank until finals.”
You managed to keep Gretel (Tippett) contained for three quarters, was that your game plan?
“For us it was knowing that they are a team that have a lot of strengths right the way down the court. Today, our focus was on Gretel, not just with Karla, but with a whole team effort, trying to eliminate her, knowing that she is a bit of a playmaker down there. So I am really pleased with the way that Karla, Maddy and Shez managed to grind that out and even put on the amazing centre pass D(efence).”
Your battle with Romelda (Aiken) was thrilling, as usual. Today, you got a lot of wins, how much pleasure do you take out of that?
“She definitely got me on the height, so I had to find new and fascinating ways to try and get to the ball. That’s the challenge of the game. These shooters are getting bloody tall and so I had to try and get up there and battle.”
What do you need to work on before facing the Giants next week?
“We need to try to maintain any lead we get. We have a tendency to sit back and stop attacking the ball. Giants will be a tough battle because they are such a tough team to come up against. They will be hurting from their loss against the Fever.”
How much are you going to draw on from your grand final against them last year?
“I am pleased with how the girls are going and hopefully it will put us in good stead from last year. It will be a different sort of feeling next week, then this week. The Giants are always firing in Qudos (Bank Arena), so it is really important that we travel well.”
Lightning seemed to have saved their best performances for last. Do you think it was the Lightning’s best out there today?
“I wouldn’t say it was the polished performance for us. It was definitely a gritty one but that it was finals is about. They aren’t going to be pretty. It’s more about using your smarts and just grinding out those wins and making sure that, when the final whistle goes, you are on the right side of the scoreboard. I am still looking for our perfect game. Last year we saved it for the grand final, and I would like it to be this year as well.”
Last week, Noeline (Taurua) said that if both teams brought their best game today, that Lightning would win. Does that mean you are a one goal better team?
“I know. We are. And, does that mean we get to fly our flag for Queensland now? Is it a shared territory rather than Queensland territory? I’ll take number one team in Queensland. Top of the list.”
It was hard to tell who had the biggest support in here today
“Oh, it was definitely the Lightning. In the fourth quarter when the cheering started, I looked over, and it was just yellow everywhere. So, this crowd have been awesome today, and I think the whole of Queensland just got right behind the teams, and rightly so. But you could definitely hear the Lightning in this stadium.”
Noeline Taurua, Sunshine Coast Lightning coach
You maintain your ‘number one team in Queensland’ tag
“We are wrapped that we are able to get ourselves over the line. It was a tight game, and like anything when you are in the position, it could have gone either way. We are lucky that we are on the right side of the scoreboard and we have got another guaranteed week of training. I am excited about that; I don’t know whether the players are. But, I am pleased with the way we are presenting ourselves to be in a top position.
“That last 15-minutes was pretty intense and torrid, and I am wrapped to come out with a win. They were coming back hard at us, and I don’t think we had that attitude of being relentless like we should have. I think we were smart in the end and we wound down the clock and some of the stuff we have been doing at training. It was really pleasing to see that out on court.”
On the Queensland rivalry
“I think it is fantastic that we have had two Queensland teams able to front up to finals. It is great to have two top teams in a national competition.”
How are you going to prepare the team for next week?
“It is all going to be in the head. You know we can’t really squeeze anything out that we are doing physically to improve on or improve our strengths much more. We can’t include anything new or try to make anything better. Our numbers are looking really nice. So, it is going to be in the head next week. The team that can execute their smarts and, also that hunger.
“Sometimes it is a flip of a coin. We are going to go in there confident and battle-hardened from the last four to six weeks of the competition. We will be working hard. Like everybody, it is about enjoying the moment. There aren’t many teams that can say they win a premiership and go back to back, or even make the top four. We are grateful for where we are and that we have one more week.”
Gabi Simpson, Queensland Firebirds
You got on top of them at the end in terms of momentum but just left it too late
“We did know that if we could play solid netball for three quarters, then in the last quarter we could take it from them. The grind is what it is about and believing that we could take that quarter. But, you know, we had the opportunities, but we let them slip. Not just in that last quarter, but the rest of the game.”
You pushed a lot of passes today. Was it their defensive pressure that did that to you or was it just a case of nerves?
“Yeah, their defensive pressure was really great and ours probably wasn’t as urgent as it needed to be. That is what we brought in the last quarter which was the difference. I think there are multiple things that went wrong. We did throw the ball away a bit too much and also that urgency in defence needed to be up there more.”
Your best netball is capable of beating anyone, do you feel like that wasn’t what was out on court today?
“Yeah. It is a weird feeling right now. I feel like we are capable of more than what we put out there and that is what finals netball is. You can have the potential to do it, but you need to put it out there when it counts. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to put out our best netball until the last quarter.”
How do you rate the Lightning’s chances of going all the way?
“I think they have a great chance. They played a fantastic game of netball today, and I can talk about us throwing the ball away, but that was because of the magnificent defensive pressure they applied. And, also in attack, they used really great angles and took control from us during periods of that game. So, they are definitely capable of taking out the trophy.”
Does it make it any easier that there is still a Queensland team representing in finals?
“It is great for Queensland but, breaks your heart that we would rather be there.”