The ANZ Championship decider will once again be an all-Australian affair after the Queensland Firebirds brought the Magic's finals campaign to an end in Brisbane tonight.
After a stunning come-from-behind win over the NSW Swifts in last week's minor semifinal, the Magic faded badly over the final quarter of their preliminary final clash, as the typically relentless pressure from the Firebirds' defence paid dividends late in the game.
Trailing by seven goals heading into the final five minutes the Magic managed one last frantic run at the Firebirds as the Queensland side appeared to get the speed wobbles late in the game. They got to within three in the final minute to make for some nervous moments on the Firebirds bench, but the push ultimately came too late from Casey Kopua's side, with a late settler down the stretch giving the homeside a 54-50 win.
The Firebirds, last year's beaten finalists, will now meet the Melbourne Vixens in the grand final next weekend. It is the second straight year and third time in the competition's seven-year history that title clash has been contested two Australian teams.
Although hugely disappointed not to have a shot at the crown, Kopua said once the hurt fades her side can look back on their season with pride. Written off at the beginning of the season after losing all but three players from their 2013 campaign, to get within one game of the grand final is a huge achievement, said Kopua. The Magic were the only New Zealand side to feature in the ANZ Championship finals this year, maintaining their record as the only team in the competition to have made the play-offs every year.
"We exceeded everybody's expectations in getting to this point and I'm just so proud of the girls. We worked so hard and left everything out there on court," said Kopua.
"There were a few tears in the huddle, but I'm just so proud of the girls, our journey this year has been huge."
Under the heightened pressure of finals netball both shooting circles fell short of their averages this season, with the Magic's Jo Harten and her Firebirds counterpart Romelda Aiken having a couple of wobbly periods in the match. Both made an especially nervous start, shooting below 75 per cent in the opening period - although the 1.96m Aiken collected all but one of her rebounds. With neither side really able to settle on attack, the scores remained tight through the opening spell with the homeside just edging ahead 14-13 at the first break.
The Firebirds made their move in the second period, with captain and star defender Laura Geitz coming into the game with a couple of handy touches to help her side to a 29-26 lead at halftime. A run of seven straight goals through the middle stages of the third period gave the Firebirds a healthy 38-30 lead. But just when the Magic looked to be out for the count, the clawed their way back into the contest to restore the deficit to three heading into the final spell.
Needing to play flawless netball over the final quarter to keep their season alive, a poor start to the spell ultimately proved the undoing of the visitors, with the Firebirds shooting out to a seven-goal lead - too bigger hurdle for the tiring Magic side to overcome.