Melbourne Vixens’ week-long exile from the ANZ Championship’s top two ended with a 58-52 win against the Southern Steel at Hisense Arena, thus sentencing the New Zealand finals aspirant to a 14th consecutive loss in Australia while enhancing their own prospects of earning a double chance.
With just four rounds of the regular season remaining, the Vixens overtook surprise round 10 losers the Queensland Firebirds courtesy of a fine third-quarter performance finished off by goal attack Tegan Caldwell (33 goals from 37 attempts) and the improved all-court defensive effort demanded by coach Simone McKinnis and anchored by circle duo Bianca Chatfield and Geva Mentor.
Having suffered their biggest loss – 11 goals – in almost two years against the Firebirds the previous week, the Vixens managed to hold the league’s leading scorer, the 198-centimetre Jhaniele Fowler (45/50) below her season average of 51.5 goals, despite winning just one quarter – the third, decisively.
The Steel may be rivalling perennial finalists the Waikato/Bay of Plenty Magic as the leading New Zealand team this season, but it remains the only Kiwi outfit not to have won a match across the Tasman. Still, it is one of the season’s big improvers, and lost few friends on this visit.
The second of the Vixens’ two Monday night games drew another healthy crowd, including a group of St Kilda footballers in a courtside box, among them Nick Dal Santo, Leigh Montagna, Sam Fisher and Justin Koschitzke. And the home team started with far more intensity than last week, working to a comfortable 15-10 lead before a lapse in the last two minutes of the first quarter allowed the Steel to level at 15-15 at the break.
It was a similar pattern in the second quarter, with the Vixens working their way ahead, helped by a productive Caldwell in attack, and several timely deflections from the admirable Mentor at the other end. But again the Steel persevered, capitalising on some ball-handling errors, while Australian-born wing attack Courtney Tairi racked-up the goal assists to Fowler, who had 27 goals to half-time.
Yet although the Steel extended its challenge into the third, it was Caldwell who inspired the recovery, scoring seven consecutive goals to turn a two-goal deficit into a five-goal advantage that had stretched to 45-38 at the last change.
What Caldwell lacks in height, relatively, she compensates for with speed and fitness, and she eventually ran Steel goal defence Rachel Rasmussen off her feet.
The Vixens travel to Brisbane next week for a rematch with the Firebirds, just a fortnight after their disappointing 57-46 loss at home. Three further rounds remain before the finals, with a final trip to New Zealand to play the Magic sandwiched between Hisense Arena fixtures against the Swifts and Fever.
Earlier, the top-placed Adelaide Thunderbirds extended their advantage with a 62-58 win over Canterbury Tactix in Christchurch, with Carla Borrego dominating with 45 goals.
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