Pre-season predictions of Northern Mystics' success in the ANZ Championship often come with caveats.
This season, along with the Mystics' reputation as a flaky, inconsistent side, it was the Auckland side's young defensive end that had some questioning whether Debbie Fuller's otherwise star-studded line-up had what it took to be title contenders in 2015. But after the Mystics stood up to the toughest defensive test of the competition in round five - 1.98m Jamaican supershooter Jhaniele Fowler-Reid - those question marks are suddenly being rubbed out.
The Auckland side pulled off a 57-52 come-from-behind win over the Southern Steel last weekend to extend their lead at the top of the New Zealand conference. But the most pleasing aspect for Fuller was seeing the rewards that came in the final quarter after applying consistent pressure throughout the match.
The Mystics managed to keep the Steel to under 60 goals for the first time this season, with Fowler-Reid having a relatively quiet outing, shooting just 38 goals, having averaged 46 goals a game leading into the match.
In Temalisi Fakahokotau, Kayla Cullen, Katherine Coffin and Sulu Tone-Fitzpatrick, the Mystics not only have one of the youngest defensive lines in the competition, but also one of the shortest. With so many teams in the competition now employing a tall, holding shooter, the Mystics have had to change their defensive strategy - focusing on applying relentless pressure right throughout the court, rather than relying on individual brilliance to produce turnover ball.
"It took all four [defenders] to take the court to keep the pressure going. When you're aware that is how we have to play to force errors from the opposition and to get turnover, the strategy becomes about the whole team, not just one end of the court," said Fuller.
The Mystics will look to build on their lead this weekend when they play second-placed Magic in Rotorua. The Magic slumped 49-38 to the Central Pulse on Monday.