The Northern Stars have bowed out of 2021 ANZ Premiership in heartbreaking fashion with a one-goal loss against the Southern Steel on Monday night.
The 46-45 win secures the Steel a spot in the elimination final on August 1 against the Mainland Tactix - although both teams still have the opportunity to stage the final on home turf if they are able to clinch that coveted second place spot with one round remaining.
It was a disappointing end to the season for the Stars who led the points table for the majority of the year and looked sure to take out their first minor premiership in franchise history before the wheels began to fall off in round eleven - the Auckland side suffering four successive losses since then.
Although they still have the chance to play for pride in their final match of the season against the Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic next Monday, it was a crushing final blow to a side that looked unstoppable early on in the competition.
"It is definitely a hard pill to swallow," a dejected Stars captain Maia Wilson remarked after the loss.
The Stars were lucky to keep up with the Steel in the first half - the Southerners bringing physicality, led by goal keeper Taneisha Fifita, that reduced the usually accurate Wilson to only 52 per cent accuracy in the shooting circle. Despite this, both teams went to the halftime break with 24 goals apiece.
A four-goal run set the Steel up for a clinical third quarter, although the Stars' disruptive defensive duo of Anna Harrison and Elle Temu kept their team within two goals heading into what was promised to be a dramatic fourth quarter.
Just as it was looking like the Steel might seal a decisive victory, the injection of Monica Falkner into the goal shoot position revived the Stars side, although their final-quarter surge was too little too late, with the Steel retaining possession in the dying seconds to snatch the win.
The Stars shooting combination was yet again on song; goal attack Tiana Metuarau staging another MVP-winning performance - her partnership with goal shoot George Fisher one of the highlights of this youthful Steel side.
With only one round left to play, the Steel come up against the Central Pulse on Saturday and will be fighting for the rights to that home elimination final. The Steel are level on points with the Mainland Tactix, though the Tactix have a 15-goal buffer in goal difference ahead of their game against the Northern Mystics on Sunday.
The winner of the elimination final will face the Northern Mystics, who advanced straight to the grand final after their win over the Pulse on Sunday secured them the minor premiership title.