The Sunshine Coast Lightning pulled off a thrilling last second victory against the Melbourne Vixens at Melbourne Arena on Sunday afternoon. Despite trailing by as many as ten goals early in the game, the Lightning fought their way back, limiting the Vixens to just one bonus point and seeing them out of the battle for the top two.

Coach Noeline Taurua again opted to start with young shooter Cara Koenen. The Lightning immediately looked to be struggling, throwing easy balls over the sideline. The defence from the Vixens across the first quarter was such that it was not easy to find space or drive. In the second phase off the centre pass there were simply no options.

While the Lightning are a team coached to hold onto the ball even if it means feeding it back multiple times, the Vixens were able to cause disarray for them in attack by cutting off these options and forcing the long and often inaccurate lobs. Strong marking of the circle edge by Renae Ingles and Kate Moloney made it difficult for Laura Langman and Laura Scherian to drive forward, with both dropping behind the transverse line to try and bring the ball through.

Steph Wood was also being marked well by Jo Weston who was matching her leads out of the circle and cutting her off as an option. The Lightning coughed up the ball on their first two centre passes off the back of this attacking confusion and the Vixens went into the lead.

Liz Watson excelled in attack for the Vixens. Image: Kirsten Daley.

Down the other end, the moving circle of the Vixens was working well. Despite impressive defence from Karla Pretorius and Phumza Maweni, the Vixens were excelling at the basics. Liz Watson was her clinical self on the circle edge, brilliantly finding Caitlin Thwaites in the backspace. Tegan Philip was shooting well from distance. The Lightning called a timeout after the Vixens went out to a 10-6 lead.

The timeout worked more in the Vixens favour at first and they went on a mini-run. But then the Lightning defence came to life. You could see Pretorius getting closer and closer to cross-court intercepts when the Vixens swung the ball across the circle. The Lightning were still struggling in the transition into attack, converting just 14% of their turnovers in the first quarter. Taurua moved Koenen out to goal attack and brought on Peace Proscovia at goal shooter. The Vixens went into the first break up by six goals.

Emily Mannix (Vixens) and Peace Proscovia (Lightning) tussle for the ball. Image: Kirsten Daley

The second quarter opened with a renewed level of defensive intensity from both sides. Emily Mannix intercepted a ball into the Lightning circle early and the Vixens extended their lead. However, the defensive intensity from both sides was forcing errors. In one centre pass shortly after the quarter began, the ball changed hands seven times with Jo Weston, Madeline McAuliffe and Liz Watson all picking up ball in defence. The Vixens were simply more clean with the ball and went out to a ten-goal lead after the Lightning lost the ball in attack.

Pretorius was impressive, showcasing her incredible takeoff speed and reading the Vixens’ tried and tested attacking plays well. Her and to a lesser extent, Maweni, had clearly followed instructions to come off the body and it was paying dividends. Pretorius got the same number of penalties in the last three quarters as she got in the first.

But the Lightning were too often left stopped in the midcourt with no forward drive. While both sides were turning the ball over, the Lightning weren’t using their opportunities. Ingles and Weston were both covering their players well and cutting off the Lightning’s structure through the court – a key part of which is attempting to shut down Langman.

Kate Moloney (Vixens) and Renae Ingles (Vixens) mark Laura Scherian (Lightning). Image: Kirsten Daley

Moloney restricted the usually prolific Langman to just two goal assists for the quarter. The Lightning were often opting to find Langman in the pocket with huge shoulder passes which few other players could have taken cleanly. Her recovery from these passes made it all the more difficult to find an accurate feed into the circle.

With five minutes to go in the quarter, it looked like the Vixens would easily get another bonus point, but the Lightning had different ideas, scoring five of the last six goals in the final two-and-a-half minutes. This was where the chinks in the armour appeared for the Vixens. The defence of the Lightning on the centre pass was forcing them to go backwards much more often than they were used to. Watson is the most used centre pass receiver for the Vixens usually, but only had one more centre receive than Ingles. The Lightning went into halftime trailing by six goals.

The masterstroke for the Lightning was the decision to put Wood back on after halftime. Wood had rightly been benched after Weston had the edge on her in the first part of the game. But the time she had spent on the bench was valuable in a different way. Wood came back on with a renewed sense of what the Lightning needed to do in the game. The increased flair in attack was immediately evident and the Lightning were looking straight into Proscovia. Wood recorded nine goal assists for the quarter and was also the leading centre pass receiver for the Lightning.

Steph Wood (Lightning) shoots over the arms of Jo Weston (Vixens). Image: Kirsten Daley.

The Lightning were also coming up with plenty of ball in defence, but unable to convert it. With five minutes to go in the quarter, they were still adrift by eight goals. The Vixens were still strong in attack, but struggling to get the ball into their shooters more than they had been – the presence of Maweni and Pretorius no doubt part of the reason for this.

Late in the quarter, the Lightning defended the centre pass intensely. This time, when Moloney fed back, it missed Ingles entirely. The Vixens called a timeout very soon afterwards, trying to leave themselves enough time to regain the bonus point. They scored two goals in a row off the back of the timeout, but crucially lost the ball when given the opportunity to equalise with misses from both shooters. The Lightning got the bonus point for the quarter and the Vixens went into the final break up by four.

Laura Langman (Lightning). Image: Kirsten Daley.

Simone McKinnis opted to bring on Mwai Kumwenda for the final quarter, a move that had worked particularly well in the game against the Swifts. No one had told Pretorius though, who stole the ball as it entered the Vixens circle for the first time in the quarter. The Vixens attack no longer looked certain in their ball positioning and the back three for the Lightning were more than happy to clean up the scraps. This forced the Vixens to look long and Maweni picked off a stunning intercept ahead of Kumwenda and the Lightning drew within one.

The Vixens called a timeout when the Lightning drew level. They made good use of the timeout and managed to gain a two-goal buffer on the Lightning, before the Lightning did exactly the same back. The roles seemed to have been reversed. The Vixens had started with slick attack and now were struggling to drive forward. Maweni was stifling Kumwenda’s drives across the baseline and Philip was trying to do too much to bring the ball in and was no longer sinking the long bombs.

The Lightning, who had looked well out of the game in the first quarter were playing like a different team. The Vixens attempted to call a timeout again and were disallowed as they had already had their allocation for the half.

Much was made of a last second call which went against Ingles. The ball was initially going to have to be taken back to Langman outside the circle, but she had already fed it in. The umpire opted to play advantage as the ball was already in the circle and Wood sealed a long range goal in the last three seconds and the game for the Lightning.

Phumza Maweni (Lightning) puts pressure on Caitlin Thwaites’ (Vixens) shot. Image: Kirsten Daley.

The Vixens will be disappointed to only get one bonus point and have now lost their chance to be in the final two. The Lightning are now sitting pretty at the top of the table. The Vixens looked in control for much of the game, but the defence from the Lightning in the final few minutes was exceptional with Maweni, in particular, taking three rebounds in the final 15 minutes.

From here, the Vixens face the Magpies in what is technically an away game for them. They will need to fight hard to down the Pies, who will be smarting after the loss of star wing attack Kelsey Browne to an ACL injury. The Lighting will face the Thunderbirds at home.

Sunshine Coast Lightning 56 beat Melbourne Vixens 55

(11-17, 14-14, 16-14, 15-10)

6,461 attendance

 

Shooting

 

Peace Proscovia 33/34 97.1%

Steph Wood 9/13 69.2%

Cara Koenen 14/16 87.5%

Sunshine Coast Lightning 56/63 88.9%

 

Caitlin Thwaites 24/26 92.3%

Tegan Philip 26/33 78.8%

Mwai Kumwenda 5/7 71.4%

Melbourne Vixens 55/66 83.3%

 

Goal Assists

Liz Watson – 28

Steph Wood – 20

Laura Scherian – 16

 

Gains

Phumza Maweni, 7 – 6 rebounds, 1 intercept

Karla Pretorius, 6 – 5 intercepts, 1 deflection

Emily Mannix, 3 – 1 intercept, 1 rebound, 1 deflection with gain

 

Starting Lineups

Melbourne Vixens

GS Caitlin Thwaites

GA Tegan Philip

WA Liz Watson

C Kate Moloney

WD Renae Ingles

GD Jo Weston

GK Emily Mannix

Changes:

Q4: GS Mwai Kumwenda

 

Sunshine Coast Lightning

GS Cara Koenen

GA Steph Wood

WA Laura Scherian

C Laura Langman

WD Maddy McAuliffe

GD Karla Pretorius

GK Phumza Maweni

Changes:

Q1: GS Peace Proscovia, GA Koenen

Q3: GA Wood

 

Simone McKinnis gives instructions to her players. Image: Kirsten Daley

Simone McKinnis, Melbourne Vixens Head Coach

On the game

“I’ve got to look at it overall. There was some really good stuff and good elements to our game today. But certainly they came out much stronger than us in the second half.”

On the momentum switch at the end of the second quarter

“We had the opportunity to take the point in that second quarter and decision-making meant we lost that opportunity and there were some critical moments, crucial balls that went missing from our end.”

The thinking behind bringing MJ (Kumwenda) on in the last quarter

“Well, one, we’ve got to find out. Two, we’ve got to provide something different down there. We have the option too of Caitlin Thwaites at goal attack. But probably didn’t have enough movement for us. But you know what? We’ve got to learn these things now.”

Preparation for next week

“Same as any other week. Back to training and we have a chat about the game today and that sets our focus for the next week in training. I thought it was a really great contest – disappointing that we dropped off in the last part of quarters, but there’s some positives – it’s a great team and there’s some real positives that we have to pull out there, as well as identifying what didn’t work for us.”

Any focus in attack ahead of the rest of the season?

“I thought we just stopped doing the hard running and the timing and the offset. There was some brilliant stuff there and we’ve got to have a look at that from today and see what that means for us moving to next week. Where we can find the space for ourselves, where we have to keep doing the work. You create space from the work you do off the ball and you stop doing that work and that’s where we get in trouble.”

On losing to the two top teams heading into finals

“You know what – I think that it’s all still there. We’re in finals. We’ve got a big match next week against Magpies, which will be a really tough one. They’re playing great netball and then we’ve got to be excited about playing whoever it is we play in that first final. That’s exciting. Once you get to the finals, whatever happens in the season itself doesn’t matter.”

Noeline Taurua (Lightning). Image: Kirsten Daley

Noeline Taurua, Sunshine Coast Lighting Head Coach

How was that?

“I’m not too sure. Obviously, us coming away with that win is massive considering we were down in the first half. We were actually on the back foot quite a bit. I thought even though we were down by nine, we got to the stage where we actually got enough ball but we were coughing it up too much in our attacking end, so really pleased that we were able to scrimp and get ourselves back into the mix and obviously win that last half.”

The message to Steph Wood when you put her back on

“Just keeping things simple. One of the things that she can do is she’s a great playmaker, but also get a bit of depth as well because sometimes she was too far outside the circle and we had no link inside. When she does that [playmaking]  she’s really formidable and I thought she did that well, especially in that last quarter and was able to control that attacking end. Also, she provided us a good defence with her and [Scherian] as well which put extra load on Vixens attacking end.”

Do this group keep surprising you?

“I just had a sit back after the game and just thought how did we do that. Definitely giving respect to Vixens, I thought their whole energy – they came out to play right from the start and they were really strong. But it was just a massive fightback and there’s really good signs for us coming out of that, but there’s also consistent messages in that we can’t keep doing this to ourselves. We’re getting unnecessary turnover and we can’t do that.”

On being at the top of the table

“We’re in there to play either one or two so that’s really good. Knowing that we do play Thunderbirds. But I know that they’ve had quite a few injuries coming out of their last game and massive injuries. We’ll be back home so it’ll be quite good once again to finish it off nicely at home. The carat of being number one is really enticing and we’ve never been in that position before.”

On the work of Maweni and Pretorius

“I thought they were amazing. Even though we were down and you could start freaking out I suppose, but we were getting enough ball and in the attack end we just needed to keep not necessarily just structure, but possession of the ball. I thought defensively we got a lot of ball, so that’s really pleasing in one end of the court. We’ve just got to get the other end firing and when we do get that, that’s going to be beautiful.”

On the future of Ferns players

“To be honest, we’ve sort of kept our head down, bum up. I know this sounds terrible but I haven’t been in touch in that respect as to what people are doing. I’m sort of quite respectful, only because I know some of the other players are in other teams and it’s just not the right timing for me to go in and ask those questions, so it will all come out in the mix when it’s ready, but it’s not going to be from me.”

On her future coaching career

“I’m coaching to the end of this year. What I definitely know at this stage – putting my hand to my heart is – I’m definitely having a holiday at the end of SSN and I know that’s not good news or any news, but I really do need to just pull off. I’ve been running hard for about the last two years. From there, I’d get a better understanding of what I need to do next. So that’s definitely a commitment I’m making.”

 

Twitter: @catrat07