Waikato/Bay of Plenty Magic continued their fairytale ride to snatch the ANZ Championship with another of their famed fight-backs following a hard-fought 41-38 win over the Vixens in Melbourne today.
Qualifying in third place for the play-offs, Magic broke a trend from previous grand finals when becoming the first New Zealand team to win the title in the five-year history of the competition. On all other occasions, every team that has won the minor premiership and hosted the grand final has gone on to win the title.
And for the first half, at least, it looked like the Vixens would follow suit today before Magic surged back to notch their 12th successive win in front of a 10,500-strong crowd at Hisense Arena. With a large contingent of Magic supporters in attendance, the win was warmly received as an impromptu haka was performed in front of the delighted team.
Ironically, Magic's last loss was against Vixens in round four, and it was the home team who had the upper hand during a tight and torrid first half. Defensive pressure won the day, and in the second half it was Magic's turn with player of the match, Leana de Bruin, in particular, having a storming influence on the final outcome.
With Vixens having the best defensive record in the competition and Magic the third best defensive record, there was no surprise this particular facet would have a major bearing.
However, Magic also possessed the best attacking record in the competition and this, after a torrid struggle, eventually got them home.
As expected, both teams stuck with their tried and true of recent weeks, the Vixens continuing to back the young shooting combination of Karyn Howarth and Tegan Caldwell.
It was a frenetic and intense start to the match, highlighted by blockbusting defence from both teams. There were few openings with every pass fiercely contested, both teams finding a clear path to goal a difficult assignment. There were opportunities for both teams but early nerves and the unrelenting defensive pressure created plenty of turnovers between each goal circle.
When the ball eventually made it to the respective circles, the shooters struggled against a sea of long-reaching arms and close defensive attention to get it through the hoop as the low scoring 8-7 lead to the Vixens at the first break indicated.
There was a little more flow from both teams on the resumption but the defensive efforts showed no sign of abating. The home team made a strong start and finish to control the second stanza after Howarth found her range after a suffering some earlier wobbles.
Vixens' defensive trio of Geva Mentor, Bianca Chatfield and Julie Corletto did a sterling job of sewing up Magic shooters Irene van Dyk and Julianna Naoupu to limit their opportunities. De Bruin picked up plenty of rebound ball but the visitors battled with their finishing through court as a late surge by the Vixens helped the home team to a 22-18 lead at the main break.
The physically draining match continued through an equally-willing third stanza as the Vixens maintained their four-goal buffer for most of the 15 minutes. Trading goals with pass-offs, Magic could not breach the home team's resilience, the Vixens outstanding defence continuing to hold them at bay.
However, Magic got a little sniff of an opportunity late in the piece, winning the quarter by a goal with a vital turnover as Vixens headed to the last break with a 31-28 lead.
Magic defenders Casey Williams and de Bruin ensured the tide turned with a forceful last quarter showing. The classy pair was instrumental in putting the shutters up on the Vixens shooters, snapping up intercept and rebound ball to help the visitors get the match back on level turns.
Van Dyk and Naoupu found their groove under the hoop as the shooting duo finally got the upper hand over the valiant Vixens defenders, their confidence rising as the shots dropped and they edged to the front in the closing stages.
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