Central completed an impressive 2017 campaign when they held out a fast-finishing Mainland 43-41 in the Beko Netball League Grand Final held in Auckland on Sunday.
Having gone through the regular season unbeaten, last year’s runners-up retained their winning momentum despite facing a stiff challenge from the southerners.
Having posted some one-sided scores through the regular season, the previously dominant Central were pushed hard by a willing Mainland side in their toughest game of the league but recovered from a slow start to hit each break marginally in front.
With the result still sinking in, it was a mixture of emotions for an overwhelmed, relieved and emotionally spent coach Natalie Milicich.
``This is a really young group and I’m just so proud of them,’’ she said. ``The courage they showed in that last few minutes to hold on for the win was immense.
``They held their nerve really well and our practise and training for the tense and pressure-cooker moments has really paid off.’’
Making changes when they had a solid lead did result in a drop of momentum for Central but Milicich has made changes throughout matches this year and was keen for as many as possible to gain the experience of playing in a final.
``Our behaviour hasn’t just been about performance, it’s also about our values, our brand and who we’re representing and making that bigger picture proud of what we do out there,’’ she said.
After staring at an early 0-5 deficit, a nervous Central defused the danger to get back on level terms through strong driving transitional play and solid shooting.
Showing great movement and accuracy, shooter Jermaine Howard-Vallance and midcourter Sheridan Bignall, with her strong through-court play, led the revival in pushing Central to a tenuous 13-12 lead at the first break.
As befitting the contest, the willingness of proceedings stepped up another notch on the resumption, fleet-footed Central captain Mila Reuelu-Buchanan, later adjudged the Beko Player of the Year, in the thick of action with her ever-ready presence and feeding accuracy.
Central defender Karin Burger also added her influence, scooping the MVP award for the day, as she continued to leave her mark on the game with her athletic ability to turn ball over and halt Mainland’s attacking momentum. That helped a Central team, still not quite in the groove, push out to a 25-21 lead at the main break.
With changes coming for both teams, Central inched their way into a position of control during a low-scoring third stanza as Mainland’s scoring slowed considerably. Defenders Burger and Renee Savai’inaea shut Mainland down on attack in a telling third quarter and it was Howard-Vallance who made the most of her opportunities under the Central hoop.
Having seemingly broken the deadlock when leading 33-26 at the last break, it was Central who were forced to dig deep when a ding dong battle ensured in the run home, a resurgent Mainland closing to within two and pushing hard until the final whistle.
Mainland persistently hustled hard on defence but the second-ranked side this season were let down at crucial times by handling errors. However, the tight tussle proved a worthy final, both sides showing plenty of passion with Mainland giving Central their toughest challenge in an otherwise dominant season.
Jermaine Howard-Vallance: 33/45 @ 73%
Eseta Autagavaia: 5/6 @ 83%
Kelsey McPhee: 5/7 @ 71%
Ellie Bird: 31/35 @ 89%
Tiana Placid: 10/17 @ 59%
Bella James: 0/1 @ 0%
Grand Final MVP: Karin Burger (Central)
Beko Netball League Player of the Year: Mila Reuelu-Buchanan (Central)