Firebirds reach trans-Tasman netball final
Melbourne Vixens' season is over, killed off by consecutive finals defeats after being temporarily given life by Sunday's inspired last quarter comeback against the Queensland Firebirds that fell four goals short.
The 50-46 result at the State Netball Hockey Centre leaves minor premier Adelaide to host the Firebirds next Sunday, and the Vixens to rue a disastrous third quarter in which they were outscored 14-7. It may also have drawn the curtain on the celebrated career of former captain Sharelle McMahon, who brought her infant son Xavier on court for the warm-down, while acknowledging and thanking the sellout crowd.
The surging Vixens trimmed what had been a nine-goal deficit late in the third quarter to just two with less than seven minutes to play, but the deficit proved too great. It was again one quarter that proved the difference, as it was - the last - in a 49-39 loss to the T-birds in last Sunday's major semi-final, last year's runners-up having pinched second spot from the Firebirds in a brilliant final round.
Vixens coach Simone McKinnis sprung a minor surprise by starting with the veteran McMahon rather than Tegan Caldwell at goal attack, but it paid early dividends, with McMahon helping to open up the space for shooter Karyn Howarth after what was a slightly scrappy opening from both teams in the face of strong defensive pressure across the court.
Geva Mentor was superb against Romelda Aiken, helping to keep the Vixens in the game in the first term, and turn what for much of it was a two-goal deficit into a 13-10 lead at quarter-time. Centre Elissa Macleod, one of four former Firebirds in the Vixens' squad, was tireless against her old team, not just negating but creating, as well.
The second quarter was just as tightly contested, but the Vixens saw their four-goal lead evaporate in the opening minutes, as Aiken found herself on the end of a string of assists, Chelsea Pitman's feeding role particularly effective. So little separated the teams that every misjudged pass threatened to be decisive, every error a potential turning point.
By half-time, 35-year-old McMahon's face was the colour of the Firebirds' maroon dresses, but her contribution - as much defensively, as anything - had been vital. At the other end, Aiken's 16th goal for the half came in its closing seconds, as the Firebirds took a 25-24 advantage to the main break.
All 3053 tickets were sold before a game that could not be played on the Vixens' regular home court, Hisense Arena, due to a pre-booking by Disney on Ice, but the smaller venue size ensured a fiercely intimate environment - if not, ultimately, a happy one.
The fresh legs of Jacinta Messer replaced Demelza McCloud at goal defence in an attempt to curb McMahon, and, indeed, the new circle duo led by the outstanding Laura Geitz succeeded in shutting down the Vixens' attack to the point that the margin had ballooned to eight by the time McKinnis benched Howarth for Caldwell - whose 10 goals from 11 attempts helped to turn the tide - and shuffled her scoring deck 12 minutes later.
But, by then, the damage was done; the Firebirds' 14-7 quarter as destructive, ultimately, as the Thunderbirds' last-term blitz had been a week earlier in helping to sentence the Vixens to a disappointing straight-sets finals exit. Adelaide will host the ANZ Championship's second all-Australian grand final next Sunday, the league's first two-time champion guaranteed.