At Melbourne Arena on Saturday, the Melbourne Vixens won their fourth game in a row, dispatching the West Coast Fever in front of a vocal crowd. The visitors were outdone in every area of the court and never looked like winning, but they did manage to take a bonus point, thanks to a Vixens lapse in the third quarter.
Fever went into the game without goal attack Kaylia Stanton, who is out with a stress fracture to her foot. They brought in Beryl Friday as her replacement with Emma Cosh also joining the team as a temporary replacement player. The Vixens had Jacqui Newton and Sacha McDonald added to their bench.
The game started with Courtney Bruce being called for contact outside of the circle, straight away giving the Vixens an easy path in. This was to become a trend for Fever more generally who picked up 12 contact penalties across the quarter to the Vixens’ eight. Bruce and Shannon Eagland both struggled to stay off the body, although Bruce really built into the game.
The Fever were having trouble on their second phase off the centre pass, struggling to drive forward, but not happy to play the ball around until space opened up. Teague-Neeld attempted to feed a ball into Fowler in the wrong position and it was cut off. On their next centre pass, they lost the ball in their attacking third against full court defensive pressure from the Vixens.
Jhaniele Fowler didn’t put a shot up until almost four minutes of the game had gone. Jo Weston and Emily Mannix had clearly been told to sit back on her and force Teague-Neeld to shoot. Despite some misses, to her credit Teague-Neeld was continuing to put up the long shots and was the main feeder for the Fever. This led to Weston more often trying to follow Teague-Neeld’s drives out onto the circle edge, leaving a one-on-one between Mannix and Fowler.
While the Fever had plenty of concerns in attack, they did manage to stick with the Vixens for much of the quarter. It was the loss of the ball at crunch moments which hurt them. They would win a ball (usually from Bruce), and score on the Vixens’ centre pass, only to then lose their own centre pass and let the Vixens put another two goals on them.
In what was to become a pattern for the game, they lacked patience in attack with the through court defence from the Vixens leaving them little other option but to lob the ball into Fowler. Within the last minute, Ingrid Colyer attempted toget the ball into Fowler from the centre third where it looked as though Mannix was outside of the circle. Instead, Weston swung across the circle at the last minute to take the intercept and cement the bonus point for the Vixens, who went into the first break up by four goals.
The second quarter started messily with both teams coughing up the ball on their first centre pass, first with a replay from Weston and then bad hands from Colyer. The Fever simply turned over more ball. The real difference was the solid defence coming from every Vixens player on court. The Vixens were certainly making errors, finishing with six fewer than the Fever for the match, but they were winning the ball back when it counted.
Philip was particularly impressive in this regard, picking up one gain through a deflection in the first quarter, and then another two in the second. This saw her go into halftime with equal defensive gains to Bruce, an unbelievable stat from a goal attack.
The Fever also had plenty of opportunities with the Vixens often the defensive pressure forcing the Vixens in and out again five or six times before their shooters got into prime position. They were able to do this because the Fever weren’t taking advantage and the Vixens were simply too pinpoint in their movements. The labour needed to get the ball in may be concerning for Simone McKinnis as they look towards finals. The Vixens always looked best when Watson hit the circle edge early and delivered her trademark stunning feed. Watson finished on 46 feeds and 33 gains to her name, far eclipsing anyone else on court. The Vixens pushed to a six goal lead and the Fever called a timeout.
Stacey Francis replaced Jess Anstiss at wing defence to try and limit Watson’s influence and was somewhat successful in reducing Watson’s easy path to the circle. Bruce was best on court for the Fever and got her hand to plenty of ball, but was unable to distract Thwaites from the take or the shot. The Fever’s woes in attack continued as they struggled on the centre pass, with both Colyer and Teague-Neeld well covered by their defensive players. When they were able to find one of these players, the Vixens – particularly Renae Ingles and Kate Moloney – seemed to form a defensive shield making it very difficult for Colyer or Verity Charles to hit the circle edge. The Vixens went into the main break up by 12 goals.
Stacey Marinkovich rang the changes to start the third quarter, moving Bruce up the court to goal defence, bringing Olivia Lewis on at goal keeper and switching Teague-Neeld out for Beryl Friday who made her debut for the Fever. The Fever came out of the blocks well, scoring the first four goals of the third quarter by turning over two Vixens balls off the centre pass. The influence that Bruce was having at goal defence was immediate, cutting off Philip’s drives towards the circle and coming up with two spectacular goal assists for the quarter as well.
The Vixens immediately called a timeout to slow the momentum and get themselves back in the game. It worked wonders for them, as they came on again and scored four goals to the Fever’s one. Friday was feeding Fowler well, but the difficulty was coming for the Fever moving the ball around the circle. Friday lasted just minutes at goal attack with three turnovers to her name, but was perhaps unlucky in this regard as Colyer and Charles continually dropped into the pockets on the edge of the circle rather than driving forward, leaving more opportunity for the defenders to sweep in and steal the ball.
The Fever, to their credit continued to push the Vixens, particularly on their feeds into the circle. The Vixens picked up plenty of defensive ball with Watson and every player behind her with one gain to their name in the third quarter, but they were unable to capitalise, converting just two from five of their gains for the quarter.
Key to their lack of gain conversion was the improved defence for the Fever. Bruce was challenging Philip who turned over the ball four times during the quarter and Olivia Lewis was holding on Thwaites strongly under the post. Francis was doing well to restrict Watson who appeared to tire towards the end of the game and was unable to bring the same energy for the last two quarters. This inconsistency across the court will be concerning for Simone McKinnis as the Vixens look towards the finals series. The Vixens went into the final break up by nine goals, but lost the quarter by three.
For the second time in as many weeks, Philip and Thwaites swapped bibs to start the last quarter, possibly in an attempt to curb Bruce’s impact on Philip. The Fever started the fourth quarter well scoring the first two goals off the back of a missed shot from Philip, with Lewis picking up an important rebound.
At the other end, Mannix had really come into the game and the pressure was starting to wear on Fowler. As she often does, Mannix built across the four quarters and had her best in the last, forcing Fowler into two turnovers and picking up four gains off some exceptional reading of the Fever’s attacking structures. Fever meanwhile were attempting to set up the triangle on the circle before the ball had even got down to them and for this reason, struggled to find accurate circle edge feeds.
Fever had plenty of opportunity to bring the scoreline closer, but failed to make the turnovers count, struggling in transition to get the ball through. Fowler appeared to be tiring towards the end, unable to control the ball when she would usually take it. Her feeders also lacked the patience to pass to her at the right height and angle, with Bruce opting to lob it from the middle third one too many times and turning the ball over. Fever called a timeout with eight minutes to go, with the message being that the attacking players needed to run towards the ball to help bring it through court, rather than setting up on the circle edge before it got there.
Vixens never looked in danger of losing this game, but Fever will rue missed opportunities. In particular, their feeders continued to drop into the pockets on the edge of the circle, offering limited vision into their shooters and causing wide looping balls which Mannix and Weston were more than happy to mop up. With less than four minutes remaining, Mwai Kumwenda made a welcome return to SSN play after her ACL injury last season. Clearly a favourite among the crowd, and her own teammates, her trademark aerial takes were beautiful to see again. The Vixens finished the game victorious by 12 goals.
From here, the Vixens will take on the injury-depleted Swifts in Sydney, while the Fever face the Magpies at home in Perth.
Melbourne Vixens 64 beat West Coast Fever 52
(19-15, 19-11, 12-15, 14-11)
MVP: Emily Mannix
Caitlin Thwaites 32/33 97%
Tegan Philip 29/32 90.6%
Mwai Kumwenda 3/3 100%
Melbourne Vixens 64/68 94.1%
Jhaniele Fowler 44/47 93.6%
Alice Teague-Neeld 6/11 54.5%
Beryl Friday 2/2 100%
West Coast Fever 52/60 86.7%
Liz Watson 33, Kate Moloney 16
Courtney Bruce 6, Emily Mannix 6
Courtney Bruce 7, Emily Mannix 7
GS Caitlin Thwaites
GA Tegan Philip
WA Liz Watson
C Kate Moloney
WD Renae Ingles
GD Jo Weston
GK Emily Mannix
Bench: Kadie-Ann Dehaney, Lara Dunkley, Mwai Kumwenda, Sacha McDonald, Jacqui Newton
Q4: GS Philip, GA Thwaites, GS Kumwenda
West Coast Fever
GS Jhaniele Fowler
GA Alice Teague-Neeld
WA Ingrid Colyer
C Verity Charles
WD Jess Anstiss
GD Shannon Eagland
GK Courtney Bruce
Bench: Emma Cosh, Stacey Francis, Beryl Friday, Olivia Lewis
Q2: WD Francis
Q3: GD Bruce, GA Friday, GK Lewis, GA Teague-Neeld
Simone McKinnis, Melbourne Vixens Coach
On the game overall
“Overall, really pleased. I thought defensively it was some of our best defensive work. In terms of that defence in the team, full court pressure and I was really impressed with that and some great finish down in attack. I think it was some of our best attack work as well.”
On Tegan Philip’s defensive work
“That’s the importance against a team like Fever to have everybody doing their part. It’s critical so I was really pleased with that. And it’s hard yakka, it’s hard work. They did it for the most part for the majority of the game. And to see Emily and Jo cleaning up some of those balls was great.”
On keeping in touch with the top two in the final games
“Each time we step out on court now, just really pushing the levels and the standards that we can achieve ourselves. And knowing that that will hold us in good stead no matter where we finish. But really, going back to earlier in the season, this was one of the games that we were super disappointed in. So I think it was really important for us to show ourselves and turn that completely around and I thought we did that really well.”
On Mannix’s work on Fowler
She did a good job. She did as well as you can do, but I think the pressure out the front from Renae and from Kate just upcourt – and Jo – I just thought that was really good today.
On MJ (Kumwenda) returning to the court
“You have no idea how nervous she was. So it was great – everyone was so excited for her and to see her take that high ball and shoot it – it was good for her – even though it was only a couple of minutes – it’s a big step for her.”
On facing the Swifts and the Lightning in the next two rounds
“We’ve got two of the best performing teams in the competition coming over the next two rounds. And including too a tough one again in the last round. But it’s in our hands still. It’s what we want and what we put out there each day will get us where we want to go. We want to finish top, we want to be playing finals and we want to embrace stepping up and fighting to new levels in our performance against these top teams.”
On areas for improvement
“I think there is more there. I think today, in terms of the way that we were moving the ball – and I know I’m a bit of a hard taskmaster but I thought there was patches – I didn’t enjoy the third quarter at all and there were patches in the last quarter. I just thought there were those little lapses that – our ability to persist across 60 minutes is what’s going to be the difference for us. So maintaining that high level and adapting to changes and things that might be happening around us. That’s the big important step for us.”
On the switch between Thwaites and Philip in the last quarters
“Right from preseason we’ve been working on that. And it’s important for Caitlin to be able to step out there and play goal attack, because in that four week break with Diamonds, she hasn’t been out there playing, so we’ve got to make sure she has that conditioning there to do it. She’s a really good strong ball handler and it’s really good for us out there.”