The Ascot Park Hotel Southern Steel celebrated their long-awaited return to Invercargill by producing an upset 51-47 win over the high-flying Northern Mystics on Friday, in an outing that had plenty riding on it.
Coming off a double loss last weekend and residing near the foot of the table, the Steel had to dig deep to hold out a late-charging Mystics and retain the much-coveted Georgie Salter Memorial Trophy.
On the other hand, and riding high after scoring an upset win over the previously unbeaten Te Wānanga o Raukawa Pulse in the previous round, the Mystics never recovered from a slow start. The Steel rocketed out to a nine-goal lead in the first quarter, protecting it through their resilience and experienced heads for the remained of the match.
Third on the table coming into the game and pressing their claims for a spot in the Grand Final, the Mystics did enough to claim a much-needed bonus point but their urgency and impetus, driven by defenders Sulu Fitzpatrick and Courtney Elliott came too late.
Playing in front of their faithful at ILT Stadium Southland for the first time this season, the Steel got off to a dream start.
Getting the first sighting of their Trinidad & Tobago import Kalifa McCollin, the Steel fans weren’t disappointed as the athletic goal attack turned on an impressive opening 12 minutes to get the southerners on the front foot.
In the growing connection between recent replacement, policewoman Ellen Halpenny, McCollin showed all her international class to make handy space under the hoop while also completing a perfect 11/11 in the first term.
It was a slow and loose start from the Mystics who couldn’t retain possession for long enough to make any impression, the Steel jumping on anything loose and powering out to a decisive 17-8 lead at the first break.
Elliott took over from Emily Burgess at wing defence on the resumption for the visitors, the Mystics rolling up their sleeves to crank up the defensive pressure while providing more attacking momentum.
That required the Steel using all their renowned patience in keeping the talented Mystics at arm’s length.
With mercurial wing attack Peta Toeava getting her radar on target to towering shooter Grace Nweke, the Mystics held a slight edge through the second stanza but the Steel retained their poise. The experienced heads of Shannon Saunders and Gina Crampton, in the engine room, helping the southerners retain a handy 29-22 lead at the main break.
In a customary move, the Mystics introduced goal attack Saviour Tui for the second half, the northerners with the early momentum to stage a threatening comeback. With three in a row, the Mystics were within touching distance when narrowing the gap to five goals.
However, the Steel had other ideas. The defensive trio of Kate Heffernan, with four intercepts for the match, the wise head of Te Huinga Selby-Rickit and exciting young talent Taneisha Fifita putting the brakes on their opponents scoring opportunities.
With Saunders and Crampton leading the charge, the Steel delivered a mix of steady-as-she-goes with slick through-court execution to once again, take the upper hand. Weathering the storm, McCollin and Halpenny continued to add to the scoreboard, shooting their team out to a 12-goal lead before the Steel settled for 43-34 margin at the last turn, leaving the Mystics with it all to play for.