There were six thousand people at Hisense Arena to watch the Melbourne Vixens take on ladder leaders West Coast Fever, who had lost only one game in the first six rounds.
The 2018 Fever team have lost only one away game this season, and with their home team coming off two losses in a row, some more pragmatic supporters might have been hoping to see a good contest at most, and view the heroics of Jhaniele Fowler in person.
While each team has an import shooter who anchors the team with spectacular play, it was the position of WA that proved pivotal in this game, with the Vixens’ Liz Watson having a standout performance.
Fever resorted to substituting their veteran former Australian Diamond goal attack Nat Medhurst to WA, to plug an emerging hole in their midcourt structure.
The Vixens started the match with a novel defensive strategy. Mannix was playing a loose circle defence against Fowler instead of setting up on the body vainly attempting to bring down the feed. Her focus was down court, watching where the Vixens defenders were channelling the feed. She set up on that side of the goal circle, inviting a cross-court feed to Fowler on the baseline, and closing in when the ball was in the air.
It was a long-range strategy, not designed to win immediate intercepts, but relied on all four Vixens defenders to slow the feed and create doubt about where to put the ball. Medhurst did the bulk of the ball carrying, providing some hurl-and-hope passes to Fowler from outside the circle that looked increasingly unconvincing, and scoring only one goal for the quarter.
In defence, Fever had plenty of opportunities in the middle of the quarter, coming up with defensive gains on four consecutive centre passes for the Vixens.
At the eleven-minute mark, the score was 12-11 in favour of Fever, and Colyer had a penalty pass opportunity into the goal circle with Weston out of play. Mannix’s clever footwork confused what should have been a simple pass to Fowler, and the Vixens came up with the ball to swiftly level the score at 12-12.
From that point, Vixens outscored Fever 5-2 to win the first quarter 17-14, and forced another feeding error to prevent Fever scoring from their final centre pass.
The Vixens emphatically put to bed recent second-quarter lapses in energy, with crisp, patient passing and dizzying variations in ball speed. Fever was forced to call a timeout three minutes into the second quarter, with the score at 23-15.
This meant that over the previous seven minutes of netball, Vixens had outscored Fever’s ladder-leading attack game 12-3. The reasons for this novel decline were many – a deflection, two bad passes, bad hands, and a stepping call in the centre third – but the cause was the relentless, team-based defensive pressure applied by the Vixens across the court.
Fever coach Stacey Marinkovich adjusted the line up by moving Anstiss to WA and bringing on Eagland at WD. This only enabled Watson to run rampant over her new opponent by contributing 15 feeds for the quarter, and the Vixens took the second quarter 26-13, the highest quarter score in the competition ever (the next highest being the Giants 23-18 third quarter against the Adelaide Thunderbirds in Round 2 this season).
A highlight of the Vixens play was the creation of space in the goal circle which allowed Philip to burn her slower opponent Stacey Francis on long leads to the post. Philip was the recipient of four blazing passes from Kumwenda who had led strongly to the sideline, and she was able to shoot nine goals confidently from close to the post, without the close body checking that sometimes discomposes her game.
The Vixens extended their lead to 18 goals in the third quarter, but it is a reflection of the maturity of the 2018 Fever team that they did not allow the margin to undermine their confidence.
Marinkovich brought on Stanton at GA and moved Medhurst to WA, but it wasn’t until she switched Bruce to GD and Francis to GK that the team was able to make substantial inroads.
Bruce was surprisingly more effective at running with Philip and shutting down the streaking leads she had been making to the goalpost against Francis, who started to win more tips and deflections in the goal circle with a more agile approach to covering Kumwenda. Fever quickly averted what was looking like a rout by winning the third quarter 18-14, cutting the deficit to 12 goals.
They were a much more disciplined team in the final quarter. Bruce won an easy intercept from Kumwenda on the Vixens first centre pass, and the teams traded goals with Fever giving away none of the costly turnovers which characterised their play in the first half.
Bruce and Francis were contesting the feeds so vigorously that after a number of vigorous collisions with Vixens players, they took each other out in the goal circle, leaving a Teflon-coated Philip to shoot for goal undefended. Bruce called for a timeout out struggling to breathe.
The umpire immediately called injury time, but an unseemly dispute between Fever players and coaching staff ensued when Bruce did not immediately leave the court. Eagland was not ready to take the court when play resumed, and Fever was forced to play out their centre pass with only six players.
The margin remained at ten goals, with Vixens trailing the quarter score by two goals, right up until 12-minute mark. Then, centre third defensive pressure by the Vixens forced a held ball on Fever’s centre pass, and Vixens outscored Fever 5-0 in the dying minutes of the game, taking the final bonus point and a satisfying 14 goal victory over the ladder leaders.
Stacey Marinkovich was generous in acknowledging the strength of the Vixens’ team play throughout the game.
“Full credit to the Vixens, they play a full-on defensive, one-on-one style, and they put a lot of pressure on us with their full-court, hands-over play. It’s a very clinical, Victorian style that they executed well for long periods of time.”
“We didn’t do the hard work off the ball and went very individual particularly for the first half of the game. We went away from our game plan, and Vixens caused some of that, and we need to look at why we didn’t let the ball go, and work together instead of getting isolated.”
“Vixens have played this strong style for so long, and I guess that’s why they are so deadly on their home court. We’ve always found it tough coming here. With Renae Ingles coming in, she’s a very experienced player who understands the game, and she’s Victorian through and through anyway.”
“We had done our homework and we knew what they were going to produce, and they’ve come out of the bye with a real energy. We certainly expected it to be hard and physical. It shows that if you go away from your game plan and don’t come to play for four quarters, you get taught a lesson.
“Losing is only a bad thing if you don’t learn from it. No game’s easy in this competition, and at least we got one point.”
“We’ve had a really good two weeks with this bye,” Vixens coach Simone McKinnis said after the game.
“They (players) had the three days off over the weekend, but they have been working really hard towards the netball that they are capable of. The work rate that they put out there was consistent across the four quarters.
“There is no easy way to beat a team like Fever. It’s about doing the hard work, one-on-one, the hands over the ball, and doing it again and again to create those little fumbles, and those balls that are lost. They maintained the pressure. They were prepared, and they knew what they had to do going into this game, and they did it.
“That game had some great strong takes on the ball and contests. I love that our girls thrive on that, and they just take it and get on with it.”
Drop everything to watch… Renae Ingles
On ABC Radio two weeks ago, Lisa Alexander said that she had seen Ingles playing in the ANL and thought that she looked exactly the same as when Alexander first saw her play 15 years ago.
In her second Super Netball game, she merged seamlessly into the settled Vixens line up. She is glowing with good health, and after the match told the 6,000 fans who attended that being back in the Vixens dress felt, “incredibly special. It’s so awesome to be back home in Melbourne in front of the Vixens crowd.”
Ingles’ defensive game is unobtrusive – she had no meaningful statistics for flashy intercepts or deflections in today’s game. Instead, she provided persistent, run-with cover of her opponent, and made Colyer work double-time to get anywhere near the circle edge to feed. This strategy also enabled Ingles to establish consistent three-foot defence of every pass, allowing her height advantage over Colyer to be a significant factor.
Colyer’s first attempted feed to Fowler came on the fourth center pass in the first quarter, when she attempted a lob from the back half of Fever’s goal third. Ingles’ intimidating presence at three feet, combined with Mannix’s closing cover on Fowler, forced Colyer to pass higher and longer than necessary over the baseline, and Vixens scored the turnover goal.
From that point, Colyer executed only three more feeds to the goal circle until she was replaced by Anstiss at WA four minutes into the second quarter. Ingles had two more opponents for the game: Anstiss, who had only two feeds, and in the second half Medhurst, who managed a more respectable total of 13 feeds at WA.
“Renae has gone up another level as well today,” McKinnis observed. “These two weeks have been really good for her. It’s not just her defensive work, it’s her drive through the court in attack, and the more she plays the better she will become.
Melbourne Vixens 74 def West Coast Fever 60
(17-14, 43-27, 57-45, 74-60)
Player of the Match: Tegan Philip (Vixens)
Kumwenda 49/51 96%
Phillip 25/31 81%
Fowler 56/60 93%
Medhurst 1/2 50%
Stanton 3/5 60%
West Coast Fever
Watson (Vixens) 37
Medhurst (Fever) 32
Charles (Fever) 13
Phillip (Vixens) 12
Moloney (Vixens) 12
Images: Kirsten Daley