The Robinhood Stars have advanced to Sunday’s ANZ Premiership Grand Final after overcoming a late-charging MG Mystics 63-57 in a pulsating Elimination Final in Auckland on Wednesday.
After playing their first Grand Final in 2019, the Stars now get the chance of a second opportunity when they meet minor premiers Te Wānanga o Raukawa Pulse in the season finale in Wellington.
Seemingly well in control when leading by 10 at the halftime break, the Stars needed to pull out all the stops against a desperate Mystics who battled all the way to keep the defence of their title alive.
The respective form of the cross-town rivals couldn’t have been more diverse coming into the match, the Stars running hot on the back of six straight wins and the Mystics struggling since the loss of injured shooter Grace Nweke and dropping their last four matches.
The Stars retained their stellar starting seven of recent weeks for the do-or-die outing with an even spread of in-form personnel scattered across the court.
The Mystics restored some of their firepower with midcourters Tayla Earle and Peta Toeava returning from illness to the starting line-up and Nweke making her return via the bench.
It was the home side who were quickly into their groove. Patient and precise on attack, Gina Crampton and Jamie Hume conducted play expertly to set captain Maia Wilson up perfectly under the hoop. Continuing her impressive run of form in recent weeks, the shooter was meticulous with her movement and accuracy.
At the other end, the imposing and persistent defensive pressure exerted by Anna Harrison, Elle Temu and Holly Fowler began to pay dividends.
A finishing burst of five straight goals put the polish on a satisfying opening spell for the Stars, who took a 16-10 lead into the first break.
Nweke made her much-awaited comeback on the resumption with Toeava and Earle slipping back into a strong connection with their towering target. It had its moments, but generally, the visitors showed their lack of recent time together with signs of some rustiness.
There were no such problems for the Stars, who were imperious on attack and having little trouble getting the ball into the hands of a dominant Wilson.
The Mystics rejigged their defence line in an attempt to stem the onslaught but the Stars low error rate and ability to hold onto the ball led to an ever-building gap on the scoreboard. The visitors had it all in front them and were left staring at an uphill battle when the Stars held prime position to lead 33-23 at the main break.
Putting their pride on the line, the Mystics lifted the tempo and intensity through the third stanza, eventually breaking the goal-for-goal stand-off to lift the visitors hopes with an exciting 15 minutes.
Nweke had a fine quarter while Mystics defenders Sulu Fitzpatrick and Phoenix Karaka picked up their work rate. However, all the effort failed to diminish the exploits of the influential figure of Wilson under the Stars hoop and the quality of her feeder Crampton, the pair not missing a beat in keeping the Mystics at arms-length.
In a high-scoring 15 minutes, the Mystics outscored their opponents 20-15, leaving the Stars feeling slightly tentative when leading 48-43 at the last turn.The Stars big names shone when they needed to most. Wilson continued her stellar run of form with a player of the match performance where she 42 of 44 shots at goal and showed tremendous poise in pressure moments.
At the defensive end, Temu and Harrison were rock solid, combining for eight gains, four intercepts and a plethora of tips, as they worked tirelessly all game.
Mila Reuelu-Buchanan and Gina Crampton brought flair with ball in hand and their accurate feeds were crucial in helping the Stars assert scoreboard dominance.