Thunder came agonisingly close to beating table-toppers Loughborough Lightning

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Manchester Thunder came agonisingly close to beating table-toppers Loughborough Lightning at the Thunderdome.

It was a captivating game from the first centre pass, with Thunder the early pace-setters but Lightning showed their class and form by refusing to give in to the pressure. The Thunderdome can be an intimidating environment for a visiting team and tonight was no different but it didn’t appear to phase a compact and organised Lightning squad.

It was a devastating finish for the home side and their army of supporters and they will rue a disappointing showing in the third quarter, leaving themselves with a mountain to climb. Thunder thought they had forced extra time with a superb snap shot from young shooter Amy Clinton, but the goal was chalked off as being taken after the final whistle, resulting in Thunder falling to a brutal 57-58 defeat.

Despite the result, head coach Karen Greig was determined to focus on the elements that worked for Thunder tonight – and their never give up attitude.
“We lost our composure after half time and we need to go away and look at that. I think all in all apart from that seven-minute wobble that we had, we did a really good job and stuck to our gameplan as close as we could. We really challenged Loughborough and took the game to them. No one else has come as close to that this season.”

Discussing the controversial closing moments of the game, Greig added: “We went into the last quarter seven down and we know what happened last week in Scotland that we can pull it back “But we went seven then 10 down and I think that gave us too much to do. It’s a disappointing end to the game. I’ll have to watch that final shot back as we thought we still ahd time on the clock but the umpires thought differently. “We’re upbeat about how we finished the game. Hopefully we’ll meet Lightning again this season and take them. It was a difficult time for Amy to come on and she did a really good job. She slots in for any combination and Sophie came on and added pace into the attack.”

Manchester Thunder came out firing, swiftly abolishing their habit in recent games of having a slow start. It seemed to catch Lightning unawares and Thunder forced a mini lead. But as soon as Lightning found their stride, the game opened up and the scores see-sawed, staying on centre for large periods of the first quarter. The second period went in a similar way, but Thunder created some real momentum to open up a five-goal lead as half time approached. Thunder’s defensive duo of Emma Dovey and Kerry Almond were pushing for turnovers constantly and they were supported well by Bea Skingsley and Gabby Marshall in front of them. It really was a tale of the defences as Lightning’s back two of Oyesola and Trip kept marking super-tight, which resulted in frustration in Thunder’s attack.
 
But ever-reliable Kathryn Turner (who was named Player of the Match for the second home match running) and her shooting partner Joyce Mvula kept at it and scored some timely shots to keep Thunder ticking over. The Black and Yellows went into half time with a slender 29-27 lead. The third was a quarter to forget for Thunder who allowed a series of inexplicable errors to creep into their game and Mvula’s solid form started to desert her as she missed chances in a tense Thunderdome. Thunder struggled to find any flow to their game and started to force passes that weren’t there.

Meanwhile Lightning’s decision to switch former Black and Yellow Beth Cobden to centre worked wonders and it forced Greig to make her first changes of the game as she brought on Sophie Morgan at centre and moved Marshall to wing defence. The fourth quarter was pulsating stuff, with Lightning opening up proceedings with two unanswered goals but Thunder had seen enough and went on a quickfire six-goal run to haul themselves back into contention. That seemingly unassailable 10 goal-deficit to the Superleugae’s unbeaten outfit resulted in the crowd going limp.

But Thunder refused to read the script and the comeback was on. Liana Leota summoned all of her experience to lead the resurgence and the Thunderdome started to roar once again, with the drums almost drowned out by the noise. It was an impossibly tense finale, with Thunder pushing for that final elusive turnover to get them the golden chance to draw things levels. And with less than a minute to play and three goals down, their opportunity came and just as Amy Clinton, who had replaced an off-colour Joyce Mvula, turned and released the shot everyone in the venue thought would be the equaliser, the final whistle echoed out in a stunned Thunderome.

It was an agonising end to an enthralling match, one which was there for the taking for Thunder but their fight and resilience left their fans beaming with pride as they departed the Thunderdome melting pot.

Report by Denise Evans :: Photos by Mark Pritchard