Jets will leave Manchester wondering how they lost in the dying seconds for the second time in as many seasons in a match that was within their hands with four minutes to play.
The visitors had a turnover advantage but a wonderful intercept from player-of-the-match Thunder keeper Kerry Almond produced scenes almost identical to those in that famous title-winning victory in 2014.
And it was once again cool-as-you-like Helen Housby who was entrusted with netting a difficult chance on the buzzer to snatch a one-goal win for Thunder.
From the very first whistle it was a fascinating contest in a full to the rafters Thunderdome. It was a match of unbearable tension between two great rivals that is always a highlight of the Superleague season.
Thunder started cautiously and Jets pressed every Thunder pass from the outset. Krista Enziano was relishing her starting place and scored some superb long-range efforts in the opening stages. Beth Cobden also made the most of being picked ahead of regular starter, Aussie import Chelsea Pitman, at wing attack.
With just a turnover between the sides and five minutes on the clock, both teams tried to assert control in a game that was open and competitive. And Almond thought she’d intercepted the ball from a sloppy Jets feed to Cato to give Thunder the impetus but the umpire thought differently. It was a moment that certainly woke the home sold-out crowd up, with the tension from the court feeding into the stands in the opening period keeping things quiet, but, like the players, the fans grew into the game.
The visitors stayed in touch and their persistence paid off when they forced a turnover of their own. They lead for the first time in the game 20-21. Sally Butters, who has been Jets’ stand-out player so far this season, was having another stormer of a game at wing defence, making Cobden work hard to find any kind of space.
Thunder’s attack was starting to wilt and Enziano’s good start was ruined by some poor movement in the circle. The purple and pinks plugged away in the centre court but captain Sara Bayman refused to be bullied and lead by example with her controlled passing. And Housby’s signature cool head under pressure made sure Thunder’s goals kept coming with Jets heading into the interval two goals to the good, 27-29. Pitman entered the game at wing attack, while Cobden switched to wing defence at the beginning of the second half.
Coach Tracey Neville made a final change by bringing on Jodie Gibson at goal defence in a bid to stop Jets’ high feeds into 6′ 6” Cato. The changes pushed Thunder to take the game on and they scored four without reply to edge into the lead again.
Thunder had taken to the court knowing they needed to produce a much improved display following an indifferent performance during the win over Jets in Leeds. And although they were more focused and played to their strengths much better this time, Jets had also improved their game significantly too. And the Yorkshire outfit had an agenda of their own, with a spot in the Superleague semi finals not yet secured.
As ever, the cross-Pennine rivalry added extra zip but Thunder found their groove as the game steam-rolled towards a thrilling final quarter. The match had become one of fine margins, with every player now all too aware that a single error could cost their team all three points.
Jets were unable to capitalise on an intercepted Pitman feed into Housby and their chance to close the gap was gone. But they did take advantage of some hesitant Thunder passing minutes later and scored five on the trot to turn this tug-of-war game on its head once again,
The score was 42-43 at the end of the third.
It was cagey start to the fourth quarter, with neither side willing to relinquish possession. Thunder were the more patient team in the build up, with Bayman not afraid to push the ball back to Cobden before resetting the attack and moving it through to the shooters. But Jets weren’t giving Thunder a sniff and an Enziano miss handed them a Turnover and Thunder had it all to do.
With four minutes to play, Jets were starting to sense a famous victory and tried to frustrate Thunder by keeping the ball moving around in the centre third. The reigning champions continued to score on their own centre pass to keep it a one turnover game but with 30 seconds to play, it it was still advantage Jets. There was plenty of time for Jets to score what would probably have been the winner but Almond – and Thunder - had other ideas. The Black and Yellows keeper produced one of the intercepts of her career as a hopeful ball was launched into Cato. Finding themselves in an almost carbon copy scenario as that emphatic win in Worcester over Surrey last April, Thunder were delirious as Housby’s winner went in and the bubbling Thunderdome finally erupted.
Thunder captain Sara Bayman said: “It’s the first time in a long time that we thought we might actually lose. There wasn’t panic on court and that’s what matters for heading into the semis because even if we are down, we don’t give up hope and still play decent netball to get out of it. I think our whole aim going into this game was to make them do as many passes as they could before launching it into the circle. We knew if we kept on doing a good job defensively then something had to give and thankfully, right at the end, it did. We’ve always talked about building pressure through the game and we noticed they’d been feeding long balls in to the circle and they did it pretty much all game accurately but it’s hard work and at some point it won’t happen. For it to be the last ball (to intercept a long pass) is kind of tough for everyone’s nerves but we believed in the game-plan and stuck to it. It’s nice to win and smash teams by 30 goals but it’s more pleasing to win a game like this to really be put under pressure and dig deep is quite big for us.”
Picture Credit Chris Midgley