Vixens stunned as Lightning claim grand final berth

SUNSHINE COAST LIGHTNING 56 (Bassett 44/47, Wood 12/14)MELBOURNE VIXENS 55 (Kumwenda 33/38, Philip 22/26 )MVP: Caitlin Bassett (Lightning) CROWD: 3763 at Margaret Court Arena

No week off. No home grand final. Perhaps no grand final at all. Such is the new reality for the Melbourne Vixens, whose 56-55 loss to Sunshine Coast Lightning means they must now must take the preliminary final route if they are to reach the inaugural Super Netball decider in Brisbane on June 17.

Following a dominating 44-goal display from Lightning spearhead Caitlin Bassett, Vixens coach Simone McKinnis was left to articulate the positives from a semi-final defeat that came despite the minor premiers having led by five goals in the third quarter and three early in the last. But, from most angles, this was a surprise result, particularly considering the 11-goal margin at the same stadium five weeks ago. Few had seen this one coming.

“You don’t beat a team like Lightning as we did last time and not think that they’re gonna learn a lot from it. I think defensively they put a bit of hesitancy into our play, but for me, too, you’ve still got to be able to just let it, go, back yourself and just let it go,” McKinnis said before disappearing for the team debrief at Margaret Court Arena.

“Pretty much the key message is we’re back next week, and there are benefits to needing to play next week. We all think it’s nice ‘oh, let’s have a week off’, but to be honest I was thinking this week, if we have the week off what’s that’s gonna look like, and part of me [thinks] there are benefits to having to play on and go through with it.

“We’ve got another chance at it. We’ve played some super good netball all year, they’ve earned the second chance and they’ll take what they need to out of that in terms of competing in a final match and we go and give it our best next weekend.”

Scores were level at quarter-time, the Vixens ahead by one at the half after a Jo Weston defensive rebound converted by Tegan Philip had helped to gain a minor advantage. By then, after a quiet two-from-four-attempt opening period, Philip had worked her way into the game, scoring eight from nine to relieve the scoring load on shooter Mwai Kumwenda and extend a partnership that has been exceptional all season.

Both coaches were content to keep the faith with their respective starting line-ups, Noeline Taurua declining to call a timeout even when the Vixens built a 34-29 lead just over five minutes into the third term. Yet just when it seemed the hosts were gaining control, the Lightning came again, trimming the deficit to one, Bassett piling on 14 in 15 minutes despite the best efforts of the persistent Emily Mannix.

In the last, Melbourne were up by three early, before a slightly sloppy period which helped the surging Sunshine Coast to draw level, and then ahead by three before McKinnis finally called her team together with five minutes left and the score 49-52.

With Bassett parked under the post, the Lightning have the capacity to score quickly, but the Vixens could not force quite enough turnover ball – or capitalise on that they did earn – to bridge the gap that had opened. Thus the side that had entered the finals having won more quarters and scored more goals than any other must take the long way to a grand final that won’t be at home.

“It was a good hard tough match, which I guess is finals netball,” McKinnis said, lamenting a diminished workrate during the final quarter before a late surge that left her young team a single goal short.

“I think they can certainly take a lot from that game. We spoke before the game that finals is [play at] that intensity, and particularly that first quarter it’s gonna be ‘wow’, and they’ve been learning all year. They’ll take a lot from that and they know what it takes to win a final.”

The Vixens will thus host the Giants, who won their knockout semi against the Magpies, in a preliminary final next Saturday night at Hisense Arena, while the Lightning prepare for the June 17 grand final in Brisbane.

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