The Melbourne Vixens went down to the Sunshine Coast Lightning on Sunday afternoon missing a sport in the finals in the process. They were unable to win the required points against a determined Lightning side in front of a crowd of 7,143 at Hisense Arena.
With the loss of shooter Mwai Kumwenda to a devastating ACL rupture in last week’s game, Kim Commane came into the squad off of some stellar form in the Victorian Netball League and was given the goal shooter bib to start.
The equation was not simple and netball pundits had their calculators at the ready. The battle for the finals came down to the last game of the regular season. To make the finals, the Melbourne Vixens needed to either win all four quarters or win three quarters and have a winning margin of around five goals to overtake the Lightning on percentage.
For the Lightning, the journey to finals was a little easier. Sitting six competition points adrift thanks to bonus points, the Lightning could still lose the game and make the finals. They could also steal second place from the Fever if they managed to win all four quarters.
Maddy McAuliffe started the game with an impressive block onto a feed into the circle. The Lightning went out to an early lead from the turnover but were unable to maintain it. The looming presence of Kadie-Ann Dehaney was putting off the Lightning feeders and early feeds to Caitlin Bassett were off target.
The Lightning also struggled off their second phase being forced to go back to the transverse line and even further back on occasion. The hesitation in attacking play was hurting them. Critically, Kate Moloney and Renae Ingles were double teaming Kelsey Browne on the centre pass. Browne is third in the league for centre pass receives and her inability to get to the ball and drive the second phase threw out the game plan for the Lightning in attack.
Kim Commane and Tegan Philip were pairing well for the Vixens with Commane in particular impressing with her drives on the baseline. Philip was doing a stellar job of drawing the defenders with runs out to the edge of the circle and along the baseline. She was timing the move off from Geva Mentor’s hold impeccably giving Liz Watson a clear passage into the circle.
The connection between Watson and Commane was clear with the first quarter showing the strength and connection they have despite a lack of recent time playing together. Watson was feeding Commane brilliantly as she moved off the hold.
On one occasion, she fed a ball into the top part of the circle and then pointed straight at the goal. Her confidence in Commane was clear and she was rewarded with a 100% return from both shooters in the first quarter.
McAuliffe was also not doing enough to hold up Watson on the centre pass or through the second phase. Watson had struggled against one-on-one defence in the previous week, but McAuliffe was not matching her for speed or challenging her on the ball. The challenges on the circle edge were often coming late, making her one of the most penalised players on court for the first quarter.
The determination from the Vixens was clear and the journey to the first bonus point of the game felt like the end of a game. The Lightning called a timeout as the Vixens went out by three goals and it worked well for them, immediately winning ball back off the Vixens. But their woes in the midcourt continued with Moloney picking up a crucial loose ball from a Lightning centre pass.
The Vixens almost lost the lead in the final minute of play with a stepping call against Watson, but Kadie-Ann Dehaney challenged Bassett well as the feed went into her and it came off Bassett over the line. The Vixens went into the first break up by just one goal.
The Lightning showed their adaptability in defence in the second quarter, almost immediately coming up with defensive wins against the Vixens’ shooters. The feed into the circle was messy as Geva Mentor and Karla Pretorius confused the space into the circle. A miss and shortly after a held ball by Philip put the Vixens on the back foot.
Moloney stood out for the Vixens across the second quarter, taking an important intercept when the Lightning won the ball in defence and getting a crucial tip on the edge of the circle to turn over the ball. The Vixens continued to struggle though, losing the ball in transition and in their attacking third in particular. The stifling defence from the Lightning was forcing the Vixens into panic mode and the speed at which they were trying to get into the circle was costing them.
In attack, the Vixens continued to double team Browne on the centre pass, but Steph Wood was able to come forward and drive the second phase, more than she had been in the first quarter. Browne was also taking the physicality from the Vixens better, able to break out of the sandwich to take the centre pass more frequently.
Browne also found Bassett alone under the post throughout the second quarter as Dehaney went hunting for cross court passes. This was an important development for the Lightning from the first quarter, as Browne was taking advantage of the double teaming on the centre pass to then run straight onto the circle edge to receive the second phase ball.
Commane continued to excel with her accuracy under pressure, but the feeds from Watson weren’t coming as readily. The work of McAuliffe on Watson was clear, with Watson only taking three goal assists for the quarter, one of her lowest totals for the season.
The one-on-one defensive pressure from Mentor was also a factor. Commane is very mobile and also quite short for a goal shooter, compared to others in the league. Rather than trying to beat her to high balls, the key for Mentor was not allowing her any space to run into.
Pretorius who is probably the best goal defence in the world at the moment was also a force to be reckoned with. Too often the Vixens were not respecting her enough and she was winning the ball on undercooked feeds into Commane and Philip. If there was a 50-50 ball, Pretorius was taking it and it was costing the Vixens. A miss by Philip allowed the Lightning to draw further ahead going into the break up by six goals.
The third quarter was a must-win for the Vixens to make finals, but they also needed to win the game and build a buffer on the Lightning. The third quarter did not start well for them with the Lightning continuing an unanswered run of seven goals before the Vixens managed to get on the board around three minutes in.
The attack end continued to be messy for the Vixens with misunderstandings between Philip and Commane marring what had been an impressive partnership in the first quarter. The Lightning were quick to collect the entrails.
The physical battle between Watson and McAuliffe continued on the circle edge, with Watson taking on the bulk of the feeding role as Philip faded. McAuliffe picked up her second circle edge intercept towards the end of the third quarter.
The Vixens continued their high defensive work rate in the midcourt with Moloney in particular stepping up her defensive effort to keep the Vixens within distance. But her intense work rate showed when she failed to run onto a ball in attack and Mentor took the flying intercept.
The Vixens managed to even up the quarter score towards the end of the quarter after Bassett replayed the ball but were unable to gain a needed turnover to turn the quarter in their favour. The Vixens continued to try high balls over the head of Pretorius which meant that even when they did gain turnover ball, it was being lost in transition. The Lightning won the quarter spelling the end of the season for the Vixens
Emily Mannix came on for the final quarter to replace Dehaney. Mannix’s impact was almost immediate and she put Bassett under a lot of pressure throughout the quarter. She picked up two impressive defensive rebounds during her time on court as well as forcing turnovers for offensive contacts. Bassett had her worst quarter of the game scoring just eight for the quarter.
To the Vixens’ credit, they did not give up and treated the crowd to a phenomenal last quarter and gave themselves a good shot at the win. The Lightning needed to win the quarter to get a home semi-final against the Firebirds next week, but were denied by the Vixens at the last hurdle.
Both Moloney and Watson were letting the ball go just as they had been in the first quarter. Watson managed her highest tally of goal assists for the whole game. The Lightning had well and truly taken the foot off the accelerator, failing to score for the first three minutes of the quarter. Mannix’s work on Bassett was paying dividends with balls sailing out over the baseline.
The Lightning struggled through their attacking midcourt thanks to stifling defence by Ingles and Moloney, as well as the work being done at the back by Jo Weston and Mannix. This lull allowed the Vixens back into the game will surely be a focus coming into the finals series.
The Vixens drew to within two goals, before five unanswered goals for the Lightning in the last five minutes of play saw the lead extended back out to seven goals. The Lightning eventually ran away winners by five, but lost the quarter.
A look at the three players sitting behind the Vixens bench in their tracksuits – Mwai Kumwenda, Emma Ryde and Khao Watts – shows the season the Vixens have had. Two of their valued backup players were also lost during the season.
Losing Kumwenda at a key moment of the season hurt them more, but Commane served them valuably for their last game. As Simone McKinnis lamented after the game, a lack of consistency was what let the Vixens down in the end and they will hope to come back next year fitter, faster and stronger.
Sunshine Coast Lightning face a fierce Queensland Firebirds in Brisbane for the do-or-die Minor Semi Final on Sunday.
Sunshine Coast Lightning 56 def Melbourne Vixens 51
(14-15, 30-24, 45-36, 56-51)
Player of the Match: Liz Watson (Vixens)
Sunshine Coast Lightning
Bassett 41/47 87%
Wood 15/19 79%
Commane 31/33 94%
Philip 20/24 83%
Watson (Vixens) 27
Wood (Lightning) 17
Browne (Lightning) 17
Moloney (Vixens) 4
Mentor (Lightning) 3
Pretorius (Lightning) 3
Weston (Vixens) 19
McAuliffe (Lightning) 18
Dehaney (Vixens) 17
Starting line ups
Changes: Q4 GK Mannix
Sunshine Coast Lightning
What they said
Simone McKinnis, Melbourne Vixens coach
Thoughts on the game overall?
“Disappointed. We were coming into it wanting the win. We wanted the points to get through to finals and it’s the end of the season so that’s always disappointing when you finish short.”
How difficult was it to get the team cohesive after the loss of Kumwenda last week?
“We only had the week to rejig, but Kim’s played with us before and I think she did a really great job out there today on court for us.
“I actually thought defensively, we really put them under pressure and did a great job and provided opportunities down at the attack end. But we needed more opportunities for the attack end to score.”
How about that second quarter? Do you think consistency has been an issue for you this year in general?
“Well that’s right and that second quarter was 16-9.”
Where did you feel you lost your way there?
“Actually I can’t even remember the second quarter now to be honest. But I think it was probably just some simple errors. I don’t know. I can’t remember.”
Do you think it shows the spirit in the group in the last quarter when you knew you couldn’t make it to finals and yet they really had a good crack at winning the game?
“Yeah I think generally there was some great spirit and for the game today. But I think we have to look at the season as a whole and opportunities that we didn’t take and opportunities where we didn’t have that spirit whether it be last week against Fever or the week before against Giants.
“If we’d shown that spirit, that fight, we could be in a different position. So I think that’s the things we’ve got to look at across the year. That’s got to be better.”
Are you happy about what lies ahead for this group?
“Not at the moment. Yeah, we’ll start planning and looking to the year ahead.”
Was today’s game a unique experience with bonus points being so key?
“No not really. Everyone bangs on about the points but the fact is if we had of won games earlier on that we should have been winning, points are irrelevant. So if we had of won against the Giants and won against the Fever then it’s not in the equation.
“We knew what we had to do and certainly at halftime it was still all right, we’ll win this next quarter. But ultimately we were just going for it to win the game.”
How do you reflect on the season overall then?
“It’s too early to reflect on it.”
Geva Mentor, Sunshine Coast Lightning captain
How good is it to be in the finals?
“We’re in Queensland so we’ll take it as our home. Look, it wasn’t pretty today but it’s important we got the right amount of points that will get us through to finals. And at the end of the day, that’s all it is. And sometimes you can’t win pretty. If we can take the win, we’ll win ugly.
“Yeah it’s been a tough season for us. Obviously a lot of people wrote us off going three-nil down to start the season but we believed in ourselves and we’ve been working each time we stepped out on the court. So we’re really looking forward to being in that position.”
Big task next week. What’s it going to be like having an interstate rivalry game for a knockout final?
“I think this whole season has just been fantastic for netball. I mean you look at this last round and it’s really come down to these final games to who’s going into finals in what position.
“For us to be against the Firebirds in Queensland – that derby game has been so vicious all season. I think it’s really exciting for the crowd, for our fans, for netball in general. So I’m really excited to play. I think the Firebirds are in some great form, so we’re really going to have to bring our best form of netball on the day.”
The Vixens won that first quarter – were you pleased with the response in the second quarter?
“Yeah we were really slow out the blocks. I’m not sure what it was – there wasn’t much voice in the warmup and I don’t know if that transferred into that first quarter because we were very hesitant with our movement and our communication.
“But definitely pleased we were able to still get those points on the board in the second and then we settled. Third was a bit scrappy and the fourth was just one we’d like to forget about.”
How about that final quarter?
“I think they’re the testing games for us. Particularly with a team like Vixens. We know that they’ve got the firepower to not only come back at you, but steal the win in the dying seconds and they’ve got that experience. So for us to be able to hold on is going to serve us well coming into this finals series.”
What was it like coming up against the Vixens after losing Kumwenda last week?
“Just look at the start the Vixens had! I mean, we weren’t too sure what to expect in the attack line and we probably took a little while to adapt but they’re the challenges that I love and that’s why I’m still playing this sport. You never know what you’re going to get and it’s so unpredictable. But I think they handled it really well and Kim in the goal shooter position did really well for them. “