The Northern Mystics can be officially scratched from the transtasman league playoffs race after slumping to their sixth loss of the season against the Steel tonight.
Laden with talent, the Mystics were expected to be top four certainties this year, but having been plagued by inconsistency all season they find themselves out of contention after round 10.
Having reinforced their line-up with Silver Fern midcourt star Laura Langman and returning defender Anna Harrison this season, the Mystics were considered New Zealand's glamour team and best chance at an ANZ Championship crown. But after losing four of their first five matches, the Mystics found themselves walking a tight-rope to keep their season alive.
After a near-miss against the Tactix last week, their fatal mis-step came tonight against the Steel, who were sitting ninth on the ladder coming into the match.
Despite their lowly position on the points table, the Steel, led by 1.98m shooting machine Jhaniele Fowler-Reid, are always a dangerous opponent. To beat the Steel it takes a committed, full-court defensive effort for 60 minutes - and while the Mystics did a good job of unsettling the visitors in patches, they could not maintain the intensity.
A six-minute lapse mid-way through the third period ultimately cost the Mystics as they turned a narrow lead into a seven-goal deficit heading into the final quarter.
"To be down by seven going into the final quarter against a team that has a high score rate like that was always going to be dangerous. We should never have got ourselves in that situation, it was really disappointing," said Mystics coach Debbie Fuller.
"That's the nature of this competition, it's brutal. A six-minute slip-up and that was it."
But Fuller refuses to accept that is it for her side's season.
"There's still a slight possibility we can make the finals, and we have to keep fighting for that."
While Fuller was holding onto a faint mathematical hope that her side could still feature in this year's playoffs, the body language of her players told another story, with Harrison and Cathrine Latu casting distraught figures on the sideline when they were replaced late in the final spell once the game had been ripped from their grasp.
The Magic and the Pulse, who meet in Porirua tonight, are the only New Zealand sides to remain in the hunt of a top four spot, but with the Wellington side having very tough run in to the finals, their chances are looking grim.
The last time the Mystics and Steel met in round six in Invercargill, a high-scoring shoot-out ensued, and it was clear from the opening exchanges tonight that a similar battle would take place in Auckland.
Each side had their chance to establish a three-goal advantage, but both failed to capitalise on their opportunity, resulting in a 16-all deadlock at the first break.
The Mystics returned from the break looking flat, lacking the drive on attack and through-court defensive intensity they had shown in the opening spell. With their first two possessions of the quarter spoiled by some wily defensive work by Rachel Rasmussen and Phoenix Karaka, the Mystics soon found themselves four goals down, prompting a time-out and a quick reminder from coach Debbie Fuller of their key tasks.
The "chat" had immediate results, with the Mystics clawing their way back to level the score at 28-all as some good hustle on defence forced the Steel into a couple of attacking errors. But just as soon as the Mystics seemed to have found their way again, a lapse in concentration on attack gave the visitors the momentum again, which they converted into a 34-31 lead at halftime.
Inconsistency again plagued the Mystics in the third period, as they started the spell with real intent, opening with a 5-1 run to take a 37-35 lead before the see-saw swung back the other way and the Steel charged ahead.