By Ian Harkin
Well, what a turn up we saw in Round six of the ANZ Premiership. It seems strange to call a match an upset when the two-time defending champions win, but that’s exactly what it was as Pulse defeated the previously unbeaten Stars very comfortably 57-44. Not many saw this result coming, despite the margin being just four goals when the two teams met in the very first match of the season. For Pulse, the star of the show was Fijian defender Kelera Nawai who had an incredible match, her performance seeing a struggling Stars captain Maia Wilson benched.
For Stars, it’s a wake up call. It will be back to the drawing board now for the next time they come up against the premiers. There were excuses for the size of the defeat however. With the score level at 18 apiece in the second quarter, Anna Harrison had to leave the court with an ankle injury. She returned to the court late in the third quarter, but by then, a lot of the damage to Stars’ hopes had been done. Pulse were on a roll by that stage and they surged to a strong victory, putting the competition on notice that they won’t give up their crown easily.
Match report – Stars v Pulse
By Andrew Kennedy
The round six clash between reigning back-to-back premiers Central Pulse and the undefeated Stars initially looked like a pencilled-in but tough win for the ladder leaders – Stars had won their five games by an average of 9.6 goals, while Pulse were struggling with only one win, against Magic. Even though holding home court advantage, Stars had no room for complacency however, having only bested Pulse by four in the opening round. It was high time for Pulse, who had lost dominant veterans Ameliaranne Ekenasio and Katrina Rore due to pregnancy, and coach of the last four grand finals Yvette-McCausland Durie, to reassert their claim for a hat-trick of titles.
Stars’ new haka, “Te Tira Whetu”, composed by Maia Wilson’s mother Karena Stephens-Wilson, and goaler Amorangi Malesala, was debuted before this round six clash, promoting regular acknowledgement and integration of Maori culture into mainstream New Zealand life. Despite the inspiring pre-game chant and a zealous Auckland crowd, the teams were extremely close during the first half, before Stars faltered after a key injury and a subsequent major disconnection across the court.
Stars Coach Kiri Wills moved three of her starting players to the bench for at least fifteen minutes, searching for answers as Pulse kept up relentless defence whilst sneakily tweaking their attacking format to skip away by 12 goals in the second half. The newer players to this year’s Pulse squad stood up for the first time, starting with consistency and then growing through the match.
The Stars were humbled at home, in their first loss of 2021, going down 44-57. With this stunning win, Pulse move from fifth to fourth on the ladder, thanks to their three bonus points from narrow losses earlier in the season, and Stars retain first, clear by just one point from Mystics.
Kelera Nawai put on a mesmerising show against the competition’s leading sharp shooter in Wilson. Last week Nawai had 22 penalties and 4 gains against Steel’s English shooter George Fisher. In round six facing Stars she had only six penalties and an amazing 12 gains. Nawai obtained front position and forced Wilson wide or close to the baseline, creating errors, but also she read lobs to Stars shooters or feeders with ease. Nawai’s incredible performance saw her finish with 5 intercepts, 4 deflections, 5 rebounds and 3 pickups.
Aliyah Dunn can’t be overlooked for Pulse. Not only did she outdo Wilson with 35 goals at 90%, she had eyes for her goal attack with six goal assists, much more than usual for a tall holding shooter.
What Worked Well?
Frequently there’s a focus on positional and lead switches of GS/GA and GD/GK. In this match the Pulse had a match-winning variety instead in their attacking midcourt. In the first half, captain Claire Kersten dominated the top of the circle with Whitney Souness taking long passes to pockets and shorter resets in peripheral areas of the goal third. This played to their natural athletic talents, with Kersten taller and stronger holding tough, and Souness zooming around the edges. Suddenly in the third quarter this changed to double-plays to the pockets, or a long drive from Kersten opening the circle top for Souness. Stars were caught off guard by the new tactic and they simply couldn’t interrupt their opposition’s progress to goal, losing the second half 31-19.
The defensive midcourt of Pulse was also brilliant. Having watched the performances of Gina Crampton and Mila Reuelu-Buchanan in recent weeks with around 20 goal assists each, it was put to Kerston and Madi Gordon to suffocate the talented Stars feeders. The gambit worked exceptionally, with Crampton on 7 turnovers and Reuelu-Buchanon on barely 10 goal assists, by far their worst performances for the season. Kersten in particular used her height, athleticism and experience to squash the 22 year old Stars centre, making it almost impossible to get to circle edge. Gordon meanwhile has rapidly cleaned up her act from 8-11 penalties in past rounds and repeated cautions and warnings for overt contact, to only 5 penalties and 4 gains. She is taking a much better line to the ball, and anticipates passes to backspace or congested areas very well now.
What could improve?
The umpires had no tolerance for bending of rules. In the first half, Hume and Mather were both cautioned for deliberate obstruction, and then in the fourth quarter Sinclair and Reuelu-Buchanan were immediately warned for dangerous contact. All four Stars players were showing their frustration, whilst the Pulse ledger was much cleaner.
Maia Wilson has largely had things all her own way in the opening rounds of the season. This match showed that under pressure she could not only forget to use her highly effective variety of movement and screens, but also falter with shots close to the post and slump to below 80%.
Where Was It Won?
The Pulse midcourt were dominant, defensively all match, and in attack in the second half. Meanwhile, there was too much hesitation from Stars in feeding, caused by the excellent footwork and positioning of Nawai, sending Wilson to the bench.
Complimenting that was the simple three tactics of Amaru-Tibble – a strong front cut to the feeder, or bolt or dodge on the baseline, or a canny feed to Dunn. Once Harrison was injured and benched then at goal keeper, these plays bore constant fruit. The Pulse goal attack finished with a season high 22 goals, at precisely her season accuracy of 82%.
Where Was It Lost?
In short, the ankle injury to Harrison in the second quarter melted the mojo of Stars. Even though she did return to the court late in the third quarter, the shuffling of defence didn’t work. With Maihi on court there was always a compromise, she couldn’t replace the intuition, experience and long arms of Harrison, nor the elusiveness and intimidating presence of Temu.
Rebounds were also dire for Stars. Missing 13 goals they only snared two attacking rebounds, whilst the Pulse defenders took six. The missed shot conversion for Stars was a disastrous 8%. Conversely, Pulse managed 44% conversion of misses, with Dunn and Amaru-Tibble taking four rebounds over the Stars’ mere two.
How did she do that??
Amorangi Malesala tried to pass across the circle, with a small deflection by Jury. Crampton grabbed it under huge pressure from behind by Gordon, went into a horizontal plank, holding herself up in the circle with the ball. Hume reacted quickly and lifted the wing attack back up by the shoulders. Hume nabbed the ball off the ground, followed by a sweet feed between the Pulse defenders from Crampton to Malesala, and a goal.
Stars: GS Wilson, GA Hume, WA Crampton, C Reuelu-Buchanan, WD Mather, GD Harrison, GK Temu
Pulse: GS Dunn, GA Amaru-Tibble, WA Souness, C Kersten, WD Gordon, GD Jury, GK Nawai
The second match of the round saw a resurgent Tactix team overcome Steel in Invercargill. Usually bouyed by their passionate home fans, it was a strangely subdued Steel team which was never really allowed to get into the game by the visitors. Tactix put their stamp on the game early, and went to the main break up by eight goals. An improved Steel showing in the third quarter, gave hope to their supporters, but it proved to be false hope as Tactix reasserted their dominance in the last fifteen minutes.
For Tactix, the defensive combination of Karin Burger and captain Jane Watson combined for 11 gains and stifled the Steel attacking line. Meanwhile, Ellie Bird piled on the goals at the other end. Bird finished with 46/48, including an incredible 17 goals in the second quarter. It was another fine showing from the goal shooter who has been instrumental in the team’s three straight wins. Kimiora Poi was also tremendous at centre. But there wasn’t a weak player in the lineup. They all did their job to perfection, exemplified by the fact that coach Marianne Delaney-Hoshek made no changes to her team all night.
For Steel, they were best served by captain Shannon Saunders, who never stopped trying. Goal attack Tiana Metuarau had a very unhappy first half with seven turnovers, the same number as the entire Tactix team to that point. She had a much improved showing in the second half, but by that stage, Steel were playing catch-up. Despite scoring 42 goals, George Fisher also became frustrated by the close attention paid to her by Watson, and was given a warning late in the game. She was replaced by Steel coach Reinga Bloxham to avoid the possibility of a send off.
In the final match of the round, Mystics defeated Magic, and moved to just one point off the competition lead. For a long time, it didn’t look like that was going to be the case however. Magic had a brilliant first quarter and led 19-13 at the first break. From that point on, the Mystics fight back began and slowly but surely, they narrowed the gap. It was just a matter of whether the home team could hold on or not. Sadly for Magic, it all ended in a disastrous final quarter where nothing at all went right.
They entered the last quarter leading 50-47, but Mystics powered home, scoring 20-9 in the last fifteen minutes to run right away with the game. For the visitors, captain Sulu Fitzpatrick continued her strong form, finishing with five gains and putting constant pressure on the Magic feeders, which bore fruit the longer the game wore on. In attack, shooter Grace Nweke once again proved to be a great target up front, and Filda Vui played well when she entered the game at goal attack in the third quarter.
For Magic, it was a case of what could have been. They began so well, but the longer the game went, the more it looked like they would struggle to hang on to their lead. Grace Kara was back from injury, but understandably it wasn’t the same dominant Kara we’re used to seeing. Once again, Caitlin Bassett struggled at times, but the same couldn’t be said of young Khiarna Williams who continues to impress in the shooting circle. She finished with 30/36 and 11 assists and was Magic’s best on the night along with captain Sam Winders who just never stops running.
Sunday, May 30
4:15pm – Mystics v Steel
6:15pm – Pulse v Magic
Monday, May 31
7:15pm – Stars v Tactix