Fairytale finish for Southern Steel
Ascot Park Hotel Southern Steel have sent their captain Wendy Frew out on a dramatic high after coming from behind for a fairy-tale ANZ Premiership crown.
They beat Te Wānanga o Raukawa Pulse 54-53 in the Grand Final at Fly Palmy Arena in Palmerston North on Sunday to claim back-to-back titles.
It marked a magical win for the Steel and outgoing captain Frew who has now played her last game in the blue dress.
They did it in dramatic fashion netting the last seven goals of the game to spoil the hosts’ party after the Pulse looked in control for much of the game.
The Steel trailed by four goals heading into the deciding spell and with just over three minutes to play were still three goals behind.
But the determination and composure of the Steel, which has been a trademark of their play, proved the difference in a tense last quarter.
There were few surprises with either starting line-ups with Ameliaranne Ekenasio’s experience perhaps giving her the edge to take the starting goal attack bib for the Pulse in what was her 50th game at this level.
She repaid the faith of her coach with a confidence shooting display and sharing the load with teenage shooter Aliyah Dunn.
Both teams made solid starts but an intercept from Pulse centre Claire Kersten was converted to give the hosts the first edge.
They held an 8-5 lead at the mid-way stage of the first quarter but a couple of missed goals gave the Steel an opportunity to level the scores.
There was no easy route into the Steel’s shooting circle with Karin Burger, who showed no signs of the rolled ankle she suffered 10 days ago, and Kersten disrupting the attacking flow.
The duo was inspirational through the middle in the first quarter as they picked up one intercept and two deflections between them.
The Pulse led 16-10 at the break and threatened to run away with the game early in the second spell as they extended the difference to 10 goals after five minutes of play.
Ekenasio was given too much space on attack as she dictated the pace of play up front and offered strong support for Dunn.
But the Steel are a side with plenty of finals experience and their core of senior heads knew when to switch gear to keep the game within their grasp.
Goal attack Te Paea Selby-Rickit led the march up front as she lifted her workload around the circle and increased her attempts at goal.
The Pulse’s penalty count spiked in the second stanza as the Steel shooters started to find their feet and the deficit was slashed to six goals at the main break.
Leading 30-24, Pulse coach Yvette McCausland-Durie opted to make one change heading into the second half with Ekenasio making way for young team-mate Tiana Metuarau.
The Steel charge continued as the confidence of Selby-Rickit and O’Connell grew and there was just three goals the difference midway through the third quarter.
It prompted the return of Ekenasio to the court with just under three minutes left in the spell in a bid to inject some pace up front.
With 15 minutes to play, and the Pulse leading just 42-38, the visitors’ big names stepped up with Selby-Rickit sisters, Te Paea and Te Huinga Reo, spearheading the challenge at either ends of the court.
Cruelly it was Ekenasio, who had played such a telling role in the final, who missed a last attempt at goal which would have sent the game into extra time.
Meanwhile, Te Wānanga o Raukawa Pulse captain Katrina Grant has been named the 2018 ANZ Premiership Player of the Year.
The defender was confirmed as the stand-out player this season following the Grand Final between the Pulse and Ascot Park Hotel Southern Steel at Fly Palmy Arena in Palmerston North on Sunday.
Grant said it was an honour to receive the award after what had been another history-making season for the Pulse.
“I’m very fortunate that I play with a group of athletes who make my job so much easier,” she said.
“We have formed a great unit this season which has showed with our performances on court.
“The Pulse has had so much support during some pretty tough seasons, so to repay that faith has been rewarding to both me and the squad.”
Grant praised the team culture for what had been an enjoyable season both on and off court.
The goal defence has returned to the peak of her powers during the ANZ Premiership where she finished second on intercepts and rebounds and was third for deflections.
More importantly, Grant’s presence on court was a telling factor for a young Pulse side which featured two teenagers in the shooting circle and a change of roles for mid-courters Claire Kersten and Karin Burger.
The Pulse set the pace over the first half of the 2018 Premiership with Grant’s leadership ensuring their standards never dipped.
She played in every minute of the Pulse’s regular season as they netted 12 wins from 15 games.
Grant has now spent nine seasons with the Pulse, the last eight as captain, and has played a leading hand in helping the franchise make the Finals Series for the last two years. She led them to the post-season for the first time in franchise history last year.
She is the second recipient of the ANZ Premiership Player of the Year award with Jane Watson, now captain of the Silvermoon Tactix, receiving the honour in the inaugural ANZ Premiership last year.
Official Result and Stats:
Te Wānanga o Raukawa Pulse: 53
Ascot Park Hotel Southern Steel: 54
Shooting Stats - Pulse:
Aliyah Dunn 32/35 (91%)
Ameliaranne Ekenasio 17/25 (68%)
Tiana Metuarau 4/4 (100%)
Shooting Stats - Steel:
Jen O'Connell 40/44 (91%)
Te Paea Selby-Rickit 14/18 (78%)
MVP: Gina Crampton (Steel)