The finals are here for Super Netball and they delivered. A heartstopping matchup to start the weekend, with the first extra time match of the year when it was all on the line.
NSW Swifts def by Adelaide Thunderbirds 64-62 (ET)
Finally, for the first time this season, Super Netball found itself with an extra time game, and despite all the signs all season, it seems like there were plenty that didn't know the rules.
A five-minute period, followed by a "three-point lead to win" scenario after that was not conveyed well, and fans were left confused.
Despite that, Tania Obst didn't panic, and the coach of the Thunderbirds admitted after the game that once extra time was required, she was quietly confident that her side would get it done.
"Going into that last five minutes, I was actually feeling pretty confident, even though there’s nothing to suggest that you’re going to get over the line,” Obst said.
"I just felt that we were really calm with the ball in hand, and we were finding our shooters really well.”
It was a calmness that worked all the way through the match, as the Thunderbirds were more collected and calmer than their more-fancied opponents.
The Thunderbirds had one player (Matilda Garrett) with Super Netball finals experience going into the match, compared with the Swifts who had only one player who didn’t have finals experience (Lili Gorman-Brown), but the visitors belied that the way they played all game.
“What I thought we did really well was just hung in there. We took the most of our chances when they presented and I thought that we were really calm and connected out on the court in the moments that mattered.”
Despite their experience, and a calmness that has been on show on numerous occasions throughout the year, and in previous years, the Swifts looked overawed by the occasion. It wasn’t just the last-gasp pass by Maddy Turner that was picked off by Tayla Williams that gave the Thunderbirds the chance at extra time.
Swifts’ coach Briony Akle agreed that it didn’t boil down to that errant pass with nine seconds left.
"You can’t blame it on one pass. I certainly think there were moments in that game that our decision-making wasn’t the best,” Akle said.
“That (shot) could have been either one or two points, but I don’t put it down to that last pass. We’ve just got to be better over the 60 minutes.”
Akle was up and about on the side of the court throughout the match, as animated as she has been all year, as she tried to will her side on (and perhaps influence the umpiring). Akle defended her passion after the game, citing the importance of energy as part of the team.
“If you aren’t passionate for your team then you may as well not be here. At the end of the day, it’s a game that sitting on your chair is not going to help, trying to be polite. I try and help them with some energy and get them going, so it’s just passion.”
Despite Akle’s obvious passion, it appeared that she again came off second best in the tactical battle against Obst. A week after Obst unveiled Latanya Wilson as a goal keeper and Shamera Sterling as a goal defence, she was back making tactical subs as often as she saw fit.
In the end, Akle made 18 interchanges, but just six before extra time. On the opposite side, Obst made 34 changes, with just two coming at the end of regulation. The two critical changes she made were at the midway point of the second quarter when Tayla Williams was introduced into the game, and at the start of the third quarter when Lucy Austin replaced Tippah Dwan.
Those changes reaped the rewards for Obst, as both young players, in their first finals series, played impactful roles, including combining for the match-saving goal as time expired.
Obst was effusive in her praise for both of her young South Australians, paying tribute to their performances.
“I am immensely proud of [Lucy Austin],” Obst said.
“She is a superstar in the making. She’s a superstar now in my eyes, and I thought her calmness and her ability to execute with Diamonds back there, I thought she was brilliant.”
Williams, who finished with 15 goal assists and no turnovers, and that courageous intercept, was in the same air according to Obst.
“Tayla’s ability to come on and assess what’s going on, I thought she was a really calm head for us to finish the game off. It’s absolutely why she got that intercept," Obst continued.
“Tayla has a very very good netball brain, and her ability to be calm in big moments, as we saw tonight, is fantastic. She reads the play very well, and she stays in the moment.
“I look forward to watching that intercept, but I’m not necessarily surprised that it was her that got the ball back.”
The win sends the Thunderbirds straight to the Grand Final for the first time in 10 years, while the Swifts will play the Fever in a bid to have a third rematch in four weeks and keep their premiership hopes alive.
West Coast Fever def Melbourne Vixens 64-57
The West Coast Fever maintained their finals streak over the Melbourne Vixens, after defeating them twice on the way to the premiership last year, ending the Vixens’ season in the minor semi-final this season.
After a poor performance last week against the Magpies, the Fever turned around their performance with a complete outing, with players all across the court standing up and putting in a strong performance.
Fever coach Dan Ryan lauded the team’s effort across the court.
“To win finals matches it takes every player on the court doing their job for the team and that was us today”, Ryan said.
The defensive end for the Fever was particularly lethal. Courtney Bruce recorded seven gains, 15 deflections and three rebounds, as she laid the foundation for a crushing defensive effort.
Ryan paid tribute to Bruce after the game, and her defensive partner Sunday Aryang.
“I thought Courtney Bruce led that [defensive effort] exceptionally well,” Ryan said.
“A big game player, the moment in the last quarter where she really turned the momentum our way with some heroic acts.
“Sunday Aryang found her moments as well, and I think the effort and endeavour and the ferocity of everyone on the full court was really clear today.”
Bruce was quick to turn the attention to her teammates, who applied the pressure further up the court to trouble the Vixens as they developed their attack.
“We knew we had more in us, I think all of us will reflect after the game that we could have done more defensively, but we did enough to get over the line and that’s exciting”, Bruce said.
While Bruce and Aryang ran riot, their output against Mwai Kumwenda and Kiera Austin was not lost on fans, as Simone McKinnis persisted with her shooting duo, rather than turning to Kim Borger on the bench.
McKinnis cited the big moments as the weakness for the Vixens, but the subtext suggested an element of frustration about the shooting end’s ability to capitalise on opportunities and create scoreboard pressure.
“There was not much in it the whole game through, it was just a couple of little moments here and there, but that’s what finals is about,” McKinnis said.
“Particularly in those pressure moments, is being able to execute and punish teams. You can’t just look at one thing, it's that ability to finish it off.”
Despite her shooting end struggling (30 per cent accuracy on Super Shots, 84 per cent accuracy on normal shots), McKinnis persisted with Austin and Kumwenda. It was a familiar sight for the Vixens. With Rahni Samason injured all year, the Vixens have played with Kim Borger as their permanent replacement player for most of the season.
Despite Borger being on the bench for 11 matches this year, she only played nine minutes, spread across two appearances. Her minutes were the least of any player who was a permanent injury replacement.
Those limited appearances gave questions for Vixens fans, as Borger is 34 years old, and not a player for the future. If her place in the side was not used as a nod to the future, it begs the question why the Vixens retained her, rather than a young talent if they weren’t planning to use their bench anyway.
A number of times, Vixens fans were left perplexed about Borger’s usage, when it seemed like the appropriate time for her to be injected into the game, only for the shooter to languish on the sidelines as the Vixens coughed up the opportunity to win. Especially given so many teams opt for a reserve shooter who can take Super Shots, the Vixens decision may have cost them a chance to roll the dice for the win, and keep their season alive.
The Vixens will now go back to the drawing board and prepare for the offseason, while the Fever travel to Sydney to face the Swifts in the hopes of keeping their premiership defence alive.
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