The Coffee Club Queensland Firebirds were relentless in their charge for the Australian Conference title tonight, conquering their finals rivals, the NSW Swifts, 63-52 in Brisbane.
Focused on becoming the first team in the competition’s history to win back-to-back ANZ Championship titles, the Firebirds were unstoppable at home in the Brisbane Entertainment Centre, driven on by the vociferous 6500-strong crowd.
They went one step closer to their goal by winning the Australian Conference for a second straight year and will now meet the Ascot Park Hotel Southern Steel this Sunday. The Swifts will meet the New Zealand Conference champions the Cold Power Magic next Monday.
Where the Firebirds stood out was in their steadiness, rarely allowing the Swifts to gain momentum, their cloying defence and, once again, Romelda Aiken’s control of the goalpost - the Firebirds stalwart shooting a blazing 49 from 55 attempts.
There were moments of brilliance and intensity from the Swifts in each of the first three quarters, but they did not come frequently enough. Sticking to within five of the Firebirds for the first half, they began to make simple errors in the third spell which lost their rhythm and cost them dearly.
There were very few mistakes in the first five minutes of the game, with just one turnover in favour of the Swifts which gave them a small break of three. But the Firebirds soon upped the ante - becoming more confident in releasing the ball. With Gabi Simpson and Kim Ravaillion disrupting play in the midcourt, the Firebirds reversed the deficit, and a dramatic final goal by Gretel Tippett took the Firebirds out to 16-12 at the first break.
When it looked like the Firebirds had the measure of the Swifts, leading by six, the visitors dragged it back to two by playing shorter, smarter netball. Laura Langman working tirelessly to stop Caitlyn Nevins having it all her own way on the circle edge. Sharni Layton, playing her 99th ANZ Championship game, threw herself into foiling Aiken – even with a heavily strapped right thigh – and won some of the battles.
Undeterred, the Firebirds stuck to lobbing missiles in to Aiken whenever Layton left her side, and re-established their dominance with a 37-32 halftime lead.
The Swifts turned to a younger midcourt in Stephanie Wood and Abbey McCulloch for the third stanza, which began with Layton getting her fingers to four tips in the first three minutes.
But at the other end, the Firebirds’ defence was stifling, the established pairing of Laura Geitz and Clare McMeniman forcing Swifts goal attack Susan Pettitt had to take on the lion’s share of the shooting. Although she responded to the challenge, the Firebirds could not be contained and Tippett’s athletic feeding of Aiken was one of the highlights of the match.
Trailing by 10 going into the fourth quarter, a mass of substitutions for the Swifts couldn’t reverse the damage already done.
photos Janos Schmidt