By: Nicole Mudgway
After a slow start to the ANZ Premiership this year, it’s hard to believe we are now at finals week. The girls have clocked up some serious minutes in the past few weeks, and will no doubt be grateful for even just a few days’ proper recovery before Silver Ferns mania kicks in. These next two games are a final opportunity for the players to prove to the selectors that they should be in the squad, so for many, there is more than just a title on the line.
First up, we have the Mystics playing the Stars at the Pulman Arena. The winner of the match will then go on to play the Pulse in Wellington. Until Grace Nweke sprained her ankle a few short weeks ago, nobody thought for even a second that the Mystics wouldn’t be hosting the grand final. Fast forward to now: the Mystics have not won a game since, and these ladies in blue suddenly find themselves in third place. We still don’t know whether Nweke is available for the elimination final (coach Helene Wilson indicated that if she had been cleared to play she would certainly be there, but this elimination final was the earliest date that we would see this happen) but it’s going to be hard to see them pulling off the win without her.
Previous scores this season: all three of the head to heads between the Mystics and the Stars this year occurred across a period of less than a month. The Mystics took out the first two (winning 68-44 and 54-51 respectively) and then the Stars won the last meeting 59-38, in their highest margin win ever in the ANZ Premiership. It’s hard to place too much weight on these scores though – between Covid hindering the Stars early on in the season and the Mystics losing Nweke at the tail end of the season, these two teams haven’t really had a fair match up all year. The Stars will bring with them the confidence of the most recent win (one that was also secured without key player Anna Harrison) although I’m sure the Mystics will have very closely analysed what went wrong that day.
Key match ups
Maia Wilson, Stars GS and Sulu Fitzpatrick, Mystics GK.
It will be a battle of the captains between Wilson and Fitzpatrick. A battle of the voices perhaps, although vocal Fitzpatrick is surely the favourite in that one. Wilson has had a few inconsistent performances across the season and Fitzpatrick will be looking to shut down Wilson’s movement around the circle, probably with a strong focus on staying close, leaving more of the hunting to Phoenix Karaka. Shutting down Wilson will put more pressure on Jamie Hume to shoot, and Stars fans will hope that she has brought her hot hands to this particular match.
Anna Harrison, Stars GK and Grace Nweke, Mystics GS.
At the other end of the court, Harrison will also be doing her best to limit Nweke’s shots. A slightly different approach is necessary; we’ve all seen by now that an accurate feed to Nweke is near impossible to defend (although if anyone can do it, we’d say it’s probably Harrison!). Harrison will do more work off the ball, using her long limbs to obstruct the vision and line of sight into Nweke, hopefully getting hand to ball before Nweke goes for the hold.
Where will it be won?
When the Stars’ attack end is firing, as in recent games, they find their flow and are hard to stop. Ever consistent Gina Crampton (whose form has been incredible at the business end of the season) backed up by zippy Mila Reuelu-Buchanan will be looking to connect with their shooters early on, because when they find Wilson and Hume without too much effort, Wilson and Hume are more inclined to shoot with confidence.
Fortunately for the Mystics, they have a world class defensive line-up and are a smooth unit when it comes to creating turnovers and bringing the ball down the court. Between Fitzpatrick, Karaka and Michaela Sokolich-Beatson, errors tend to be minimal and gains are always consistent. If the Mystics can create sufficient turnovers down this defensive end, they will give their teammates more opportunity for conversions.
Where will it be lost?
Even if Nweke is cleared to play, there is a high chance she will be incredibly nervous. She has never had a serious injury before (and ankle injuries in a shooting circle are a creator of nightmares!) and the black dress is unlikely to be far from her thoughts. There is huge expectation placed on Nweke, and with the Mystics recent run, she’ll be feeling the pressure to perform. Whether these nerves impact her game or flow onto her shooting counterparts, only time will tell. If they do, we might see a few errors creep in.
The Mystics team is full of talented and hardworking athletes, so it feels disrespectful to hinge their success on whether Nweke is playing or not. They are certainly not a one trick pony, but there is no denying that Nweke is their best trick. Nweke has been such an integral part of the team all season, and her sudden injury has not given the relatively fresh combination Monica Falkner and Filda Vui much time to step up and fill the void.
Other factors to consider
The Stars and the Mystics have had the reverse seasons of what each had last year. Last year the Stars came out with a bang, sat at the top of the table for the majority of the season and faded when it came to crunch time. In contrast, the Stars this season had a slow start to the season and have slowly been building in recent weeks, timing their run to the finals perfectly. The Mystics were hit by Covid-19 (again) two weeks ago, and if we only see Tayla Earle and Peta Toeava on limited minutes, it might restrict the momentum the team can obtain.
Having a home crowd is probably of the least significance for these two teams. Given they are both Auckland based teams, we can expect a strong showing of both Mystics and Stars fans, even if it is the Stars’ technical home crowd. Small factors (like familiarity and comfort) might help a tiny bit, but are unlikely to have a huge impact.
It’s hard to go past an in-form Stars team, stacked with experience, talent and who are hungry for a finals showing. They’ve been gaining momentum and like recent weeks, we can expect them to come out knowing exactly what they need to do to secure the win. However, if the Mystics have their full team back, they’ll be wanting to finish off what they started, especially because a loss will mark the end of coach Helene Wilson’s tenure with the team.