The new-look Central Pulse have put injury setbacks aside to pull off a thrilling one-goal win over the Magic in their transtasman league opener in Wellington tonight.
It was the second one-goal heartstopper of the opening weekend of the ANZ Championship, following the Steel's stunning comeback win over the Mystics on Friday, as both more fancied New Zealand sides suffered shock round one defeats.
After trailing the Pulse by five late in the final spell, the Magic produced a desperate late charge and had a chance to level the score in the dying seconds with a Jo Harten penalty shot. But the English import's mid-range shot was off-target, and the Pulse captured their first win.
The rejuvenated 2016 Pulse line-up features eight changes from last season, with veterans Joline Johansson (nee Henry) and Liana Leota among the casualties of new coach Tanya Dearns' sweepng changes.
However, the most recent change to the roster was unplanned, after experienced shooter and key playmaker Jodi Brown suffered a season-ending, and thus career-ending, knee injury just two weeks ago. The loss of the former Silver Fern thrust 18-year shooter Maia Wilson straight into the starting line-up for the Pulse in her rookie season.
The Magic were missing some key experience of their own after skipper and star defender Leana de Bruin was ruled out the match with a foot injury. With de Bruin sidelined, Wilson matched up against fellow ANZ Championship debutant Kelly Jury in the first half.
Such promotion of young talent was almost unthinkable only a couple of seasons ago, with the trend being for coaches to fill fringe spots on their roster with veteran players who were unlikely to develop beyond the point they were already at. But a shift in thinking in recent years has seen franchises more prepared to take a punt on younger players and bring them into the ANZ Championship environment earlier.
It wasn't just the Pulse shooting circle where young talent was on display, the youth was spread right across the court, with the average age of the Magic starting line-up being just over 22, while for the Pulse, it was 24.
With an all-new front-line this year, which also included former Firebirds star Chelsea Locke (nee Pitman), the Pulse not surprisingly were a bit ragged in their opening touches as they continue to work one another out.
But when they were at full noise, the Pulse attack looked sharp, with their transition ball particularly impressive. The Magic also had their moments, but their attack was generally stilted with star shooter Jo Harten unable to find the space she usually does under the suffocating defence of Katrina Grant and Phoenix Karaka.
Trailing by four mid-way through the third quarter, the Magic made a change to their midcourt, benching the ever-reliable Grace Rasmussen in favour of Courtney Tairi, who returned to the competition after missing virtually the entire 2015 season through injury.
But it took a change to the defensive end in the third quarter before the Magic were really able to make any gains. Jury, who struggled to shut-down the long-ball into the Wilson, took a spell on the sideline, with Kristiana Manu'a moving back to goal keep, and Katherine Coffin taking the court at goal defence.
Manu'a, who herself was in Jury's position only a year ago in filling in for star defender Casey Kopua while she recovered from injury, did a better job of containing Wilson, forcing the Pulse to rethink their attacking strategy. While they worked it out, the Magic seized the advantage to take a four-goal lead mid-way through the third spell.
But just when it looked like it was returning to business as usual for the defending New Zealand conference champions, the Pulse produced a run of five straight goals to end the quarter with a two goal lead.