It was a gritty performance against a stubborn Mavericks side, who were the better team for the opening quarter, but were ultimately over-run by a dogged and clinical Thunder. Mavericks found themselves in a seven-goal lead in the first half, but Thunder kept the belief and it felt inevitable that as soon as they clawed themselves in front, they would not relinquish the lead.
This never-say-die attitude is something captain Sara Bayman says sets her side apart from the rest. The England star said: “They started well but we made unforced errors in that first quarter. The most pleasing thing is that we never deviated from the game-plan we continued to try and do what we set out to, but do it better. That was the difference. When you’re seven or eight goals down, what’s the worst that can happen? It already has. That’s our mentality – let’s go out and play. No one believed we were going to lose it. There was still a composure about us and we were willing to put in three good quarters to make sure we did. Our response was too strong for what they had out there and they knew we wouldn’t lay down and die.”
Thunder completed the regular season unbeaten last year, only to fall at the semi-final stage to tonight’s opponent, and Bayman is convinced that experience will benefit the Black and Yellows this time around. “We have to enjoy being undefeated. As soon as you play well, there’s a target on your back. Teams do up their game when they play us,” she claims, “and it’s almost a compliment as everyone hates winners – think about Manchester United in the 90s, everyone wanted to beat them. We just need to make sure we step up for the next match,” added the 31-year-old.
Following an error-strewn opening period, skipper Bayman admitted that her side were forced to ‘start again’ at the start of the second quarter. A relatively ineffective Ellie Cardwell was brought off and Natalie Haythornthwaite came on at goal attack, with Helen Housby switching to goal shooter.
Coach Dan Ryan’s sole change in this match turned out to be a pivotal one, with young England shooter Haythornthwaite bringing variety and speed to Thunder’s attack.
She continued her burgeoning relationship with Helen Housby, seamlessly latching on to some rocket feeds from Bayman and Liana Leota.
The New Zealand wing attack really showed her credentials in the second half, flashing audacious passes in the blink of an eye to her shooters and carving up the Mavericks defence with textbook footwork and movement.
It was a game of high intensity throughout, with long periods of the match going goalless with a number of mini duels taking place in the mid -court, namely between Sam May and Leota.
Keeper Mally Kelly put in another strong performance and was assisted by Laura Malcolm and Jodie Gibson, who both popped up with timely interceptions.
Thunder are clearly now the team to beat.
On Monday they face a wounded Surrey Storm, who were beaten by a single goal in their Saturday match. And the defending champions will be baying for their rival’s blood in front of the Sky Sports cameras, desperate to avoid a second defeat on the bounce.
Thunder starting 7: GK Kelly, GD Gibson, WD Malcolm, C Bayman, WA Leota, GA Housby, GS Cardwell