By Ian Harkin
Round seven of the ANZ Premiership concluded with a thriller, but it began with an upset. Coming into the match in fifth place, Southern Steel travelled to Auckland and accounted for the second-placed Northern Mystics on their home court. It all started with a strong first quarter as Steel capitalised on a series of Mystics errors. Elisapeta Toeava had five turnovers on her own by quarter time. She then didn’t have another one for the rest of the game, but the damage was already done. Up by six goals at the first break, Steel controlled the game from that point on.
For Steel, young defender Taneisha Fifita continued a strong season, collecting five possession gains, including four intercepts. At the other end of the court, the combination of George Fisher and Tiana Metuara had a much improved showing. Metuarau, who had eight turnovers the previous week, had just two against Mystics, and importantly she was able to take some of the scoring load off Fisher, with 16 goals of her own. All three midcourt players performed their role well, with captain Shannon Saunders continuing her fine form.
Mystics gained some consolation in the loss, mounting a late comeback to claim a valuable bonus point in a game they didn’t look likely to win from early in the first period. Despite the loss, Grace Nweke kept up her goal scoring spree with 52 and Sulu Fitzpatrick was her usual reliable self at the back, picking up seven gains while being penalised just seven times. Penalties were a major problem for Mystics in this game, giving away 67 to Steel’s 41. Kate Burley was penalised an incredible 21 times.
The second game of the round saw Central Pulse continue their recent impressive run, with a comfortable victory over Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic. The first half was relatively even with Pulse going to the main break ahead by two. But they then won the second half comfortably to take the match by 11 goals. Magic coach Amigene Metcalfe made a surprising selection decision pre-match, naming Grace Kara to play goal attack. While Kara was successful in bringing Caitlin Bassett into the game more, her own shooting accuracy was poor (6/14).
For Pulse, the attack functioned very well. As the season goes on, Te Amo Amaru-Tibble is proving to be a more than adequate replacement for Ameliaranne Ekenasio. She combined perfectly with Aliyah Dunn in this game and they were both well supported by Whitney Souness who had 21 goal assists and an amazing 44 centre pass receives. With the defensive duo of Kelera Nawai and Kelly Jury winning ball for fun, Pulse will be a threat to every team. For Magic, their best once again was captain Sam Winders. She plays well every week but needs more support.
The final game of the round was a classic, between the two teams that many experts expected to be playing off in the grand final this year. If this was indeed a grand final preview, we’re in for one hell of a decider. Tactix held sway for most of the night and led until a Stars surge in the final quarter looked like giving the home side victory. But then another twist and the scores were level at 51 apiece when we saw a chaotic last two minutes. First Stars gained possession and had the chance to take the lead, then Karin Burger took an intercept and handed the chance to her side.
Tactix must surely regret their thinking in the final minute as they played the ball around, clearly trying to delay the scoring of their 52nd goal in order to not leave their opponents a chance to reply. In the end, they took so long, that they left themselves too little time to actually get into a good shooting position. The shot by Te Paea Selby-Rickit missed, and instead of Tactix celebrating, they were off to extra time. Three straight goals to start extra time had Stars in the box seat throughout, and despite another late Tactix charge, Stars held on to win a memorable game.
Match report – Stars v Tactix
By Andrew Kennedy
In a tight slog for the top of table Stars, they showed grit to recover from a bland start. The visiting Tactix used a lot of their luck and energy to get a seven-goal lead early, but gradually lost command due to too many errors in the forward line and much improved energy from the hosts. Tactix held the lead for most of the game due to their clean first quarter, but feeds dropping short and the critically low accuracy of 69% in the fourth quarter lead to extra time. As they stalled, the Stars shooters regained their flair and took the momentum to win 57-56.
What Worked Well?
The zone and rotational defence of Tactix was very organised all game. They used two key strategies, either isolating the ball carrier, or running sharply onto the next passing option, confusing the Stars and denying them their usual width and quick release. Karin Burger was particularly smart with her timing, amassing seven gains, best for the match.
Both goal shooters bore frequent double teaming, and both Wilson and Bird had to use all their tricks to get free. Bird mostly neutralised Temu and Harrison by never using lateral leads as the ball came down, preferring sharp leads and dishing off well. Meanwhile, Wilson heading into the second half started to find her mojo, and dictated the space she wanted, especially finding the backspace from a hold high in the circle. The Stars captain dropped to the baseline when too much focus was on defending Hume’s decisive front drives.
Gina Crampton kept up her pleasing form even when her team were lacklustre in the first half, having at least seven centre pass receives per quarter, 26 goal assists, and a respectable four turnovers. The slow start of Stars was mostly about their lack of defensive endeavour, with zero gains in the first (and also third) quarters.
What could improve?
For Stars, centre Reuele-Buchanan had a few clangers on the circle edge, noticeably missing backspace moves or screens from Wilson after the first quarter. Hume also was low on goal assists with only eight, and if she was able to flick the ball on quickly to Wilson this would create more confusion for opposition defence.
Silver Fern Maia Wilson once again was caught being overly rough as she tried to delay and block the opposing centre pass and was warned inside the first 60 seconds of the game. In an earlier round she was filmed deliberately eye-gauging a foe – in this game she was attempting to screen Burger but rammed her shoulder into the face of Watson. Even though it was not intentional, Wilson will need to clean up her defence or be sent off.
In the second half, Tactix attack failed to place ball into space. Even though the Stars defenders were positioned well, it really was poor placement from the Cantabrians that gave some easy gains to the hosts. The hosts converted four of six gains in the fourth, more than the tally for the first 45 minutes, to earn extra time.
Pure and simple, Tactix dictated all the terms in the first quarter, and Stars will need to regain their swagger in the next few rounds, squashing their opponents rather than having to play catch-up.
Where Was It Won?
The combination of Hume and Crampton did enough in the second half to claw back for a win. Having been down by seven goals in the first quarter, the Stars were struggling against the brilliant swarming Tactix defence. Later in the match they found bodies and played off them, and used more thoughtful feeds to their two strong options – Hume taking front space and double-playing herself to a shot, or Wilson dropping to the baseline. It was also critical that Hume revive herself from dismal 8/14 shooting at 57%. From that point early in the third quarter she nailed 11/12 and dragged her team over the line.
It was also Anna Harrison’s three blocked shots in the fourth quarter that turned the tide. She made Bird and Selby-Rickit nervous, shooting below 70% in the fourth quarter.
Where Was It Lost?
Tactix betrayed their name, used the WRONG tactics in the last minute of regulation time. Stars had possession with scores drawn at 51 apiece, when Burger took a magical intercept off a low feed to Wilson, and Tactix moved the ball to their attacking third. They then played the ball around for way too long, and Selby-Rickit was forced into a long shot with only four seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. She missed, and the Stars continued with their fourth-quarter momentum, winning the extra time by six goals to five.
How did she do that??
Burger gave an ambitious pass to Nathan way in the right pocket. The wing attack had to hurl the ball backwards over her head completely unsighted towards the goal circle, and Bird grabbed it (brushing off the snow) above both Stars defenders. She then uses the sprinting Nathan to double play herself back in for a cool shot.
Stars: GS Wilson, GA Hume, WA Crampton, C Reuelu-Buchanan, WD Sinclair, GD Harrison, GK Temu
Tactix: GS Bird, GS Selby-Rickit, WA Nathan, C Poi, WD Elley, GD Burger, GK Watson