After ending the regular season at the top of the league, Loughborough had two chances to make the end of season final through the play offs system, but needed only one to establish their credentials as a title favourite with some slick, skilful netball that blew the Tynesiders away.
With Team Northumbria’s inspirational Kiwi GK Megan Hutton rested as a precaution after a training injury incurred on Thursday evening, Loughborough’s Jo Harten and Becky James cut loose from the first whistle, as the new Northumbria backline of Natalie Connor and Rochelle Quigley struggled to settle in. Using a flat, fast game plan, the Lightning trio of Clarke, Murphy and Hampshire were soon dominating the midcourt, and with Harten netting goals at will, the score moved out to 13-2 after ten minutes with Northumbria shell shocked. Lightning cruised on, with Murphy and Clarke taking several impressive interceptions and the table toppers ended the first quarter 20-7 ahead.
Northumbria scored the first goal of the second period, but this was only a brief respite as Loughborough continued to press forwards at an electric pace. GD Kara Luck was in superb form, supporting the midcourt unit with some well timed drives, and taking key interceptions to keep the momentum in Loughborough’s favour. Northumbria settled into their own game plan midway through the quarter, and with veteran GA Lisa Stanley using some clever runs and pop passes to create space, they increased the pressure on Lightning, who responded with some beautiful links through to the shooters. By half time, the lead stood 35-17 in Loughborough’s favour.
Both coaches juggled their line ups in the third quarter, with Loughborough moving Jo Harten to GA and introducing Alex Wood at GS to create a towering front line, while Murphy moved to WA and captain Charlotte O’Neill was introduced at C. Initially, the Northumbria changes had more effect, with the experience of Stanley, now at GS, and the height of McLeod, moved to GA, posing problems for Luck and Reid. However, when leading the quarter 10-8, Northumbria lost C Elissa MacLeod with a serious ankle injury, and Rose Port’s side took the opportunity to regroup, driving the ball through to Harten with more control, to take the quarter 16-15 and lead 48-30 at three quarter time.
All credit to Team Northumbria for the way they attacked in the final period, with all of the squad continuing to contest every ball, which kept Loughborough on their toes. In an end to end period, neither team was prepared to give ground but it was the Tynesiders who took a slight drawing advantage, to take the quarter 16-15.
However, the damage had been done earlier in the game, and despite drawing the second half 31-all, Rose Port’s squad could take comfort from a job well done in a 66-48 victory, which sees them straight through to the Grand Final on 05 April. Maintaining the pace and accuracy through four quarters will be a challenge and one that the squad will be focusing on in the next two weeks, before facing either Mavericks or Team Northumbria in the match for the title. Meanwhile, Northumbria will be looking to regroup and regain their early season form ahead of the minor final against Mavericks, which takes place at the EIS in Sheffield on 29 March 2008.
Starting line ups:
Loughborough Lightning: GS Harten, GA James, WA Hampshire, C Murphy, WD Clarke, GD Luck, GK Reid
Changes/substitutions: 3rd Q: GS Wood, Harten to GA, Murphy to WA, C O’Neill 4th Q: GD Tomlin (rep by Luck midway through quarter)
Team Northumbria: GS L McLeod, GA Stanley, WA Burgess, C E MacLeod, WD Montgomery, GD Connor, GK Quigley
Changes/substitutions: 2nd Q: WA Lonsdale, Burgess to WD, 3rd Q: following injury to MacLeod Burgess to C, WD Rees
Umpires: Judith Groves and Kim Lumley