Maintaining their composure in the cauldron of Finals Series netball, the Robinhood Stars have booked their place in the ANZ Premiership Grand Final.
A commanding third-quarter performance and nerves of steel in the last minutes of play proved the difference as they ended the run of the defending champion Te Wānanga o Raukawa Pulse, winning the Elimination Final 53-52 in front of a sell-out crowd at Te Rauparaha Arena in Porirua on Sunday.
They now head to Hamilton for next week’s all-Auckland Grand Final against the MG Mystics on 4 June.
In an absorbing encounter which went to the wire, it was the Stars who held their composure in a willing fourth spell as they won their first ANZ Premiership Finals Series match against the Pulse – the two teams having met in two previous Grand Finals.
Only a handful of goals separated them for much of the deciding quarter and despite the home crowd willing the Pulse on, the hosts were unable to break the Stars in particular the ice-cold performance of Amorangi Malesala who netted the winning goal on the buzzer.
It not only ended the Pulse’s season but also the reign of long-time coach Yvette McCausland-Durie who steps down from her role after helping the club to three Premiership titles.
There were no surprises in either line-up with both teams knowing today’s match was a must-win to keep their season alive.
Five minutes into the game and the scores remained locked but it was the Pulse who had the first opportunity to break, forcing the Stars into a held ball with Amelia Walmsley able to convert at the other end of the court.
But a fumble in the attacking circle shortly after allowed the Stars to draw level as the intensity started to build.
Patience was key for both sides but as the minutes counted down the respective feeders started to show their flair with Whitney Souness (Pulse) and Gina Crampton (Stars) threading the ball into their shooters.
A deflection from Pulse co-captain Kelly Jury – who was marking her 100th national league game – with just over two minutes allowed the hosts to again open a two-goal buffer which they were able to maintain, leading 14-12 at the first break.
Attacking errors marred the opening minutes of the second stanza as the importance of the occasion seemed to sink in.
By the midway point, the scores were again locked and there looked to be no easy answers in how to break the stalemate as the attacking ends again showed equal measures of patience and flair with the ball.
It took the individual brilliance of Maddy Gordon around the circle, for an intercept with four minutes left in the half, to give the hosts another opportunity to nudge ahead of the scoreboard.
And it was Gordon’s brilliance again which not only helped her team to a four-goal halftime lead but her clean intercept on the run bringing the home-crowd into the game with the Pulse leading 29-25 at the main break.
The Stars forced two early turnovers on the resumption of play to slash the advantage almost immediately as an injury scare to Souness silenced those in the stands.
A lift in the shooter-to-shooter play between Wilson and Malesala was also evident as the visitors kept the pressure firmly on.
An intercept from Holly Fowler at the other end of the court gave the Stars the chance to level the scores and go one ahead as the physicality and pressure for every ball also increased.
Momentum had fully swung the Stars way and a three-goal difference threatened before a menacing lean from Jury gave the Pulse the opportunity to stem their run.
But the Stars’ bubbling confidence was hard to put a lid on as the defensive unit, led by Elle Temu and Fowler, started to tighten the screws against the Pulse, the visitors leading 41-37 at the last turn.