For a remarkable 45 minutes of netball, the Southern Steel were on track to pull off the biggest finals upset in the history of the ANZ Championship.
Leading the defending champion Queensland Firebirds 49-47 heading into the final quarter of today's semifinal clash in Brisbane, Kiwi fans dared to believe we could finally see a transtasman league grand final played on New Zealand soil.
All it took was a couple of small lapses early in the fourth quarter for the clinical Firebirds side, who are chasing a slice of history of their own by becoming the first side to win back-to-back titles, to extinguish those hopes.
The Firebirds produced a 20-15 final quarter surge to claim a 67-64 win and a fourth straight grand final final appearance.
Few expected the Steel would ever get that close. The Southern side have set the pace in the competition this year, going through the season unbeaten until last weekend's New Zealand conference final against the Magic. The 59-57 loss made the Steel's route to the grand final immeasurably tougher, booking themselves a meeting with the defending champion Firebirds.
In nine seasons of the league the Firebirds have only been beaten once at home by a New Zealand team - the Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic in 2013.
While the Steel's 66-51 win over the Firebirds in their round 11 match-up suggested they had a good chance of toppling the Australian conference champions once again today, in reality few considered the visitors a chance.
The Firebirds' defensive end was decimated for the Invercargill clash, with inspirational skipper Laura Geitz and fellow Australian international Clare McMenimen sidelined through injury, and the Queensland side are seasonsed finals performers. Returning to their trademark patient and clinical style of play that seemed to elude the Steel for long stretches of the match against the Magic last week, the vistors looked prepared for an arm wrestle from the outset.
The Steel got the first break in the match, courtesy of a Gina Crampton deflection on a Firebirds centre pass, to take a surprise three-goal lead through the middle stages of the opening quarter.
But an intercept from Clare McMenimen and a clever pick-up from Gabi Simpson on consecutive Steel possessions put the homeside in the lead for the first time in the match nine minutes in, which they held through to the first break.After leaking 19 goals in the opening quarter, the Steel defensive pairing of Jane Watson and Te Huinga Selby-Rickit ramped up the pressure in the second spell, forcing Firebirds' super shooter Romelda Aiken high in the circle and out of her usual comfortable shooting range.
With Aiken stranded outside her usual playground under the goal, the Steel were able to force a flurry of passing errors from the Firebirds attack to reclaim the lead in front of a disbelieving Brisbane crowd. A couple of missed shots from Gretel Tippett also helped the Steel's cause as the visitors surged to a 35-32 lead at halftime of the back of a dominant 19-13 second quarter effort.
The homeside found better rhythm in the third spell, cutting back on the attacking errors to starve the Steel of further turnover opportunities.
But the clinical Steel side were also giving away very little ball attack, as they made the most of Jhaniele Fowler-Reid's height advantage in the circle to maintain the lead heading into the final period. Just when the Steel looked to be on the verge of the biggest upset of ANZ Championship finals history, their execution went missing.Two stepping calls on Fowler-Reid in the opening six minutes of the quarter put the Firebirds out to a handy four-goal advantage, and from there the visitors crumbled. A couple of pushed passes saw the Firebirds extend their lead out to seven goals, before the Steel produced a late fightback.
The Firebirds will take on the winner of tomorrow night's semifinal clash between the Magic and NSW Swifts in next weekend's grand final.