Surprises all round for Magic, Firebirds

By Dana Johannsen

Neither team expected to feature in sudden-death preliminary final, but for very different reasons.

Ellen Halpenny of the Magic shoots during the match against the Sydney Swifts. Photo / Matt King
Ellen Halpenny of the Magic shoots during the match against the Sydney Swifts. Photo / Matt King

This wasn't the preliminary final anyone was picking.

Neither the Magic nor the Firebirds were expected to feature in this weekend's sudden-death match, but for very different reasons. Having only just scraped into the playoffs after dropping four of their last five matches of the regular season, last weekend's minor semifinal was expected to be the extent of the Magic's involvement in the 2014 finals.

The Firebirds, meanwhile, were considered the form team of the top four after steamrolling their way into second position on the ladder on the back of six straight wins. With the Vixens having a poor outing against the Steel in their final round match, the Firebirds were considered a strong chance of snatching away the grand final hosting rights from the Melbourne side in last Monday's major semifinal.

But in keeping with the unpredictable nature of the 2014 competition, both results went against expectations.

After trailing the NSW Swifts for most of the match, the Magic produced a dramatic last-gasp win in their sudden-death semifinal in Sydney, while the Firebirds blew their chance at hosting the grand final after an uncharacteristically error-ridden performance against the Vixens.

And so, the Firebirds and Magic will battle it out in Brisbane on Monday night for the right to take on the Vixens in the title decider.

The Firebirds dispatched the Magic in the final round of the regular season just two weeks ago in Hamilton, with the homeside unable to match the Queenslanders' accuracy on attack. Their task will be all the tougher on Monday, with the Firebirds coming off a disappointing performance against the Vixens.

The Queensland side's strength undoubtedly lies in their two bookends -- star defender Laura Geitz and 1.96m Jamaican shooter Romelda Aiken. The Magic's defensive pairing of Casey Kopua and Leana de Bruin did a solid job of containing Aiken the last time the two sides met, but much of their gains were wasted on attack as the Waikato-Bay of Plenty side struggled to find a way through the Firebirds' slick transition defence.

The Magic will need to do a much better job of moving the ball through the court at pace to prevent the attack end from getting bogged down. It has been a mixed week for the Magic attack, with the Silver Ferns team announcement for the Commonwealth Games bringing both cheer and despair for members of the side. Uncapped shooter Ellen Halpenny was rewarded for her efforts this season with a call-up to the national side, while Grace Rasmussen, arguably New Zealand's top-performing wing attack, was unable to force her way into the Games team.

How those two players deal with the distraction and, in Rasmussen's case, disappointment, could be key to the Magic's success on Monday night.

Outer circle...

Too much for coach
Silver Ferns coach Waimarama Taumaunu found this week's pre-Commonwealth Games training camp in Auckland over-subscribed. The camp, which is focused on fitness and skills, was scheduled to allow the New Zealand squad members that weren't involved in the ANZ Championship finals campaign to stay sharp ahead of the Glasgow tournament next month. But with the Magic once again the only Kiwi team to feature in the finals, Taumaunu had a lot more players on her hands than she bargained for.

"I was hoping there would be fewer people there. It's very much about a specialist skill stuff and we'd always planned to pick up the ones who are not in finals, we just hoped there wouldn't be so many."

Baby no barrier
Adding to the head count in the New Zealand camp this week is Liana Leota's 3-month-old daughter Karney. "I'm still breast-feeding so wherever I go, she has to go at the moment," said Leota, who was reselected in the national team after returning to the court only in round nine of the transtasman league. "It's great that they let me bring her and are really flexible. Wai gave me a bit of extra warning that I was going to be selected because she knew with three kids I can't just drop everything and jump on a plane." When Leota first mentioned the Commonwealth Games were still on her radar after returning from the UK in April with a new baby in tow, many thought the dynamic midcourter was being overly ambitious. While she is still off the pace physically, the selectors believe Leota's experience and court smarts will be a valuable asset in Glasgow - but she has a hell of a lot of work to do over the next six weeks. "I know people were thinking, 'Yeah, right', when I said I wanted to play in the Commonwealth Games," said Leota. "For me I think my head is still there, my body just needs to catch up. That's all I need to work on is getting the fitness back and fine-tuning those combinations with the girls."

Latu in spotlight
Having had little opportunity to play with Ferns shooter Cathrine Latu throughout her career, Leota has been spending plenty of extra time working with the Mystics' sharpshooter in camp this week. The sudden retirement of veteran Irene van Dyk has ramped up the pressure on Latu in Glasgow, with the mercurial shooter forced to make the transition from impact player to dominant shooter. Conscious the ball placement into the circle will be key to getting the best out of Latu, Leota has been working hard to build her connection with the former Samoan international. "At trainings we've been doing 100 passes at the end of training just so we can create that link and when I turn and look I know what she's going to do. I know that link is going to take a while, but the more we practise together the better it will get."

ANZ Championship Preliminary Final
Queensland Firebirds v Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic

Brisbane, Monday, 9.15pm

- NZ Herald

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