Finding their groove late, the Southern Steel powered home to clinch a 66-60 win over the much-improved Northern Mystics to close out Round Nine in Dunedin tonight.
Well in the contest heading down the home straight, the Mystics could not contain the defending champions who showed their pedigree when it mattered most, lifting the intensity levels and improving their accuracy to finish in dominant fashion.
Unlucky to miss out on a bonus point, the Mystics started full of promise, changes in the final quarter taking time to settle as the Steel overcame a slow start, capitalising on opportunities while the visitor's chances dried up.
There were no surprises in the Steel line-up with goal shoot Lenize Potgieter reclaiming the starting spot.
Captain Phoenix Karaka continued to be ruled out of action with concussion, but the Mystics welcomed back wing attack Elisapeta Toeava from injury while retaining the well-performed Grace Kukutai at wing defence.
Mystics in-circle defenders Michaela Sokolich-Beatson and Erena Mikaere got away to busy start with a flurry of early intercepts but both teams were guilty of wasting too many opportunities.
In a muddled start, good play was overshadowed by not so good, both teams struggling with their accuracy rates as the Mystics edged to a 14-13 first quarter lead.
There was more urgency from the Steel on the resumption, midcourters Shannon Saunders and Gina Crampton finding their fluency on attack and providing more ball for an increasingly influential Potgieter while Kate Heffernan played a strong hand with her disruptive presence at wing defence.
Mystics schoolgirl sensation Grace Nweke was introduced early in the stanza, the towering shooter having a difficult start under intense pressure from Te Huinga Selby-Rickit (in her 150th combined national league match) and Abby Erwood.
Down by six, the Mystics rallied with a late three-goal burst to narrow the gap, leaving the Steel with a 30-27 half-time lead.
Directed by patient feeding from Toeava, Emma Iversen and Bailey Mes, Nweke found her feet during the third stanza, a stirring fightback getting the Mystics back on level terms early in the third stanza.
Slightly rattled in their shooting circle and looking for consistency across their court, the Steel found themselves with a battle on their hands.
Both teams had mini surges as each tried to wrest the initiative. Courtney Elliott entered the fray, replacing Te Huinga Selby-Rickit while her sister at the other end, Te Paea Selby-Rickit found her range under the hoop to help the Steel keep their noses in front, 45-43, at the last break.