Silver Ferns 49
By Liam Napier in Liverpool
A gripping one-goal defeat to Australia has the Silver Ferns on course for a World Cup semifinal with England.
With the Ferns and Australia already locked in the final four regardless of the result, New Zealand's first loss of the tournament in Liverpool is not a hammer blow to prospects.
It does, however, offer hope that the Ferns can again compete with the world's best after winning the third quarter by two goals, the fourth by three, and coming within one missed shot of tying the game.
New Zealand are ranked fourth in the world and after this spirited effort – surging back from eight goals down in the second quarter – they may feel encouraged about their chances of making the final.
Maria Folau, who finished with 21 from 24, had the final attempt to tie the game at the death – after a Jane Watson tip gave New Zealand a chance. Folau's shot hit the rim to bounce away, giving Australia the tense victory.
Australia, world No 1 and defending champions, were always favoured to claim the first genuine contest for both teams at this World Cup – the Diamonds have now won 12 of the last 13 clashes with the Ferns, but they had to survive a proper late hurry up.
Australia's victory secures the favourable semifinal opponent in South Africa, who were thumped 58-47 by England in their final group match.
After five cakewalk victories, there was a noticeable lift in quality and intensity from both New Zealand and Australia.
Noeline Taurua predicted she would know within first five minutes of this match where the Silver Ferns sat among contenders for the title.
The start was positive from the Ferns but by the second half changes came thick and fast with Folau and Casey Kopua among those benched in the third quarter.
Taurua opted for Katrina Rore at wing defence over Karin Burger and the Ferns held their own in the opening quarter to establish an early two goal lead.
Physical, dogged defence epitomised the tightly fought contest.
Whether it was Australia's supreme, smothering one-on-one marking or New Zealand's zone defence, finding passages into the shooting circle proved difficult for both sides throughout.
The Ferns harnessed patience on attack – they were prepared to go back to move forward and often used all three seconds before a safe option presented.
As the match wore on, though, Australia's defensive pairing of Jo Weston and Courtney Bruce enjoyed the upper hand.
A miss, turnover, tip, penalty and suddenly momentum swung Australia's way, allowing them to push out to a three-goal advantage which they then doubled to lead 28-22 at halftime.
Kopua attempted to inspire with tips and intercepts but, under such pressure, New Zealand's midcourt were guilty of throwing away possession.
As Australia slowly turned the screws, Taurua turned to her bench two minutes before half time by injecting Bailey Mes for Ameliaranne Ekenasio, and pushing Folau into goal attack, in search of more movement at the attacking end.
Taurua then threw Shannon Saunders into wing attack for Gina Crampton in the third quarter, and swapped Folau for Ekenasio.
Changes continued in the final period as Kopua re-joined the fray in partnership with Rore, and Burger coming into wing defence.
Folau returned for the final two minutes of the match for Ekenasio, and she had the big task of netting the goal to tie the match after coming in cold off the bench.
Most of those changes helped spark the fightback, leaving the Ferns with plenty of combinations for their semifinal showdown. But they also cannot afford to give the opposition such a headstart.
In the end, eight goals proved too many reel in.
"This is what it's all about I love games like that," Silver Ferns coach Noeline Taurua said.
"It's good to get a taste for that sort of pressure and those challenges. We've still got a bit to go to keep up and put in a dominant performance but it's a great start. We did need it, we've learned a lot before the semifinal.
"It's do or die now whether you get through to gold medal contention. It's great for us to have that under our belt."