Loughborough Lightning 55 Manchester Thunder 56
Manchester Thunder clung on to victory over Loughborough Lighting to retain their unbeaten start to the season.
And in return they ruined Lighnting’s perfect start, as the Black and Yellows sneaked a 55-56 win.
Thunder did not start well and fell six goals down in the opening quarter, but they gradually found their rhythm and chipped away at Lightning’s lead.
After trailing for most of the first half, Thunder forced the advantage in the third and didn’t look back, snuffing out any chance of a comeback for Lightning.
It was a tense finish but Thunder stood firm and closed out the game for a memorable win.
Head coach Karen Greig said: “Our start was slow and disappointing and we didn’t adapt quick enough to their keeper.
“It was important to make a change early and Joyce came on and did something that worked for us.
“Once we got it back to within a couple, I knew it was in our grasp – we are a gritty team and always work for each-other.
“But this win means nothing if we don’t back it up against Dragons on Saturday.”
Lightning started at a pace that suited their name, bamboozling Thunder, who were slow out of the blocks in contrast.
Lightning’s defenders quickly worked out Amy Clinton’s movement and blocked her out of the game in the opening exchanges, as her feeders struggled to work the ball to her.
She was replaced by Joyce Mvula after picking up an ankle knock, and the Malawi Queen slotted into the game, offering up a more effective option and Thunder closed the gap.
But their hard work was undone with some untidy play as the first quarter progressed and Lightning forced a 17-13 advantage at the first break.
Thunder had recognised the error of their ways and brought some more efficiency to their play at the beginning of the second
Amy Carter and Bea Skingsley were starting to connect well, especially in bringing the ball through court from defence.
Thunder were still too static in certain areas of their play, but even when they lost possession, they worked hard to win it back.
Turner made amends to a rare miss as she tracked back and came up with an intercept, the story of Thunder’s growing tenacity and determination to haul themselves back into contention.
Lightning dictated play for much of the first 20 minutes, but Thunder won the second quarter in terms of scoreline, which was a sign of things to come in quarter three.
They persisted in closing Lightning down, double-marking whenever they could and gradually the errors from the home side came.
Thunder were able to capitalise on those errors much better than they had in the previous quarter. While neither team forced any sustained momentum, the control swung like a pendulum and turned into a true tactical battle.
Loughborough were anchored by Peace Proscovia’s imperious form but she was powerless to stop Thunder doing the same at the other end and a five-goal lead was diminished by half time to a single score.
It was a case of can a rattled Lightning push on in the second half or can Thunder sustain their confidence and take the lead for the first time since the first centre pass of the game?
And it took less than two minutes of the second half to find out, as Thunder, – unlucky not to get a held ball call – won a backline pass, carried the ball through court and went in front, 28-29.
It was a pulsating and unforgiving third quarter, with even a glimpse of an error punished by both sides.
But Lightning had been worked out as the quarter went on, as Thunder stuck to rigidly to their game plan.
We were set up for a grandstand finish worthy of the Sky Sports cameras, and we were not disappointed.
Thunder had all the momentum with five minutes played in the fourth but Lightning kept searching for a way to quash it, with some success.
At 46-49 Thunder were powering through the court, lifted by Emma Dovey’s two intercepts in as many minutes.
The captain’s experience with defence partner Kerry Almond was vital in withstanding the pressure, as was Liana Leota’s professional and assured performance at wing attack.
As the senior players stood firm, it was the junior ranks that really put a shift in tonight, with Carter continuing her fine start to the season and Joyce Mvula showing how comfortable she is playing on the road and against top-class opposition.
With five minutes to go, Thunder opened up a five-goal lead and it turned out to be too much for Lightning to claw back.
In the closing stages Thunder controlled the tempo, treasured their possession and held on for the win.
Thunder starting 7: GK Almond; GD Dovey; WD Skingsley; C Carter; WA Leota, GA Turner, GS Clinton