The NSW Swifts squandered an opportunity to claim pole position in the Trans-Tasman netball league in Auckland tonight as the Northern Mystics' upset victory offered Kiwi rivals Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic the possibility of earning two lives when the finals series gets underway.
A surprise 56-53 loss at Trusts Arena - their first defeat to a New Zealand franchise in 2014 - means the Swifts are destined to qualify third while the Magic can finish the regular season in second place if they beat the Queensland Firebirds in Hamilton tomorrow night.
The winner of that match plays the Melbourne Vixens, who claimed the minor premiership despite losing to the Southern Steel in Invercargill yesterday, in Sunday's major semifinal - the loser will survive to play the winner of Monday's sudden death contest between third and fourth.
Crucially the Mystics built a four-goal lead early in the final quarter and increased the margin to seven before the Swifts rallied in vain.
Superb goal shoot Cathrine Latu (32/33) was a driving force behind the win as she dominated her duel with Australian defender Sharni Layton; Maria Tutaia (24/31) was the perfect foil and typically a reliable supply line for her fellow Silver Fern.
Tutaia, the Mystics captain, was understandably rapt the team closed out the season on a high.
"It means a lot. I'm super proud of the girls. It's something to look forward to next year," she said, before refusing to confirm if she would continue to represent the Mystics in 2015
"I couldn't tell you, well see. I love the Mystics, the Mystics is my home" is all Tutaia would offer when her future was raised post-game by Sky Sports.
Swifts captain Kim Green denied the pressure of potentially finishing top affected their performance.
"I don't think that was it. We made sure we were concentrating on the game. We're third now I think, we're just happy to be in the finals to be truthful.
"We knew they had a really great game last week (against West Coast Fever). They played absolutely amazing," she said.
The Swifts had beaten New Zealand opponents by an average of 13.5 goals in 2014 but trailed at every break.
The Mystics, who finished a frustrating campaign in seventh, replicated their impressive form in the previous round victory against the Western Australians.
They led 19-12 at the end of the first quarter on the basis of Latu and Tutaia having made seven more shots - former Australian international Susan Pratley was particularly quiet being confined to just two attempts.
However, the Swifts - notably Pratley - were more prominent in the run-up to halftime, bridging the gap to two thanks to a confidence-boosting 5-0 run early in the quarter.
In direct contrast to the opening term the Swifts duo had the benefit of making seven more attempts than their rivals as Caitlin Thwaites and Pratley defied a measure of the defensive pressure exerted by compatriot Julie Corletto and teenager Temalisi Fakahokotau.
The 19-year-old again belied her inexperience at elite level by claiming two intercepts and disrupting the Swifts flow with seven deflections and could be in contention for a call-up to the Silver Ferns' Commonwealth Games squad when it is named on June 10.
Swifts shooter Gretel Tippett made her first appearance in the unfamiliar role of wing attack this season when Sarah Wall pulled out through injury and she used her 1.92-metre height to good effect although some of her circle feeds were wide of the mark and she was twice guilty of turnovers when holding possession longer than three seconds.
The Mystics had a two-goal buffer at the main break and the penultimate quarter was a nip and tuck affair with neither side able to construct a definitive scoring sequence though the Swifts did trim the deficit to a solitary goal to set up a tense encounter down the stretch.
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