Fittingly in the last chapter of the ANZ Championship it took extended extra time before The Coffee Club Queensland Firebirds claimed the 2016 Grand Final title with an epic 69-67 win over the NSW Swifts in Brisbane on Sunday.
In a rematch of last year’s Grand Final, the Firebirds became the first team to win back-to-back titles while sealing their third overall, to be the most successful team during the nine-year history of the ANZ Championship.
In a pulsating tussle during which the lead changed hands 16 times, a gallant Swifts were unable to reverse last year’s equally gut-wrenching Grand Final loss.
Seemingly gone for all money, the visitors climbed back from a five-goal deficit to level up the score 54-all on the fulltime whistle. Again, they came from behind to be all square at 66-all at the end of extra time.
It took a Gabi Simpson intercept to help the Firebirds forge the necessary two-goal winning margin in extended extra time to close out the end of an era in style.
It was the visitors who delivered the strongest of openings, throwing down the challenge against a nervous and rattled Firebirds.
Using their pace, the Swifts midcourt of Abbey McCulloch, Laura Langman and Kimberlee Green drove to the ball and space decisively to get the upper hand on attack.
Firebirds shooter Romelda Aiken became the first player to record 5000 goals in the ANZ Championship during the opening stanza but generally the home team struggled to convert as the Swifts headed to the first break with a 15-12 lead.
The Firebirds were quick to get the match back on even terms during an absorbing and tight second stanza. The lead changed hands on numerous occasions as the tug of war between the rivals continued.
A lift in defensive intensity and greater involvement from goal attack Gretel Tippett helped the home team gather a 29-27 lead at the main break despite experiencing some wobbly shooting moments.
There was no easing off during an equally thrilling and desperate third stanza, the willing contest lifting another notch as the individual battles intensified across the court.
First one team, then the other nosed in front, play seesawing back and forth as the pressure mounted on each passage of play. In the end it was the Swifts greater composure and patience to convert their turnover opportunities.
With shooters Caitlin Thwaites and Susan Pettitt sharing the load expertly under the hoop, the Swifts set the scene for a cracking run to the line when leading 42-41 at the last break.
Firebirds Shooting Statistics
Romelda Aiken 63/89 (71%)
Gretel Tippett 6/11 (55%)
Swifts Shooting Statistics
Caitlin Thwaites 34/41 (83%)
Susan Pettitt 30/39 (77%)
Stephanie Wood 3/4 (75%)
Finals Series MVP: Kim Ravaillion
– but the sailors praise the new boats