In the battle to decide who would finish second to Australia in the group, the tussle went right down to the wire, with the lead changing hands multiple times before the Zim Gems held their nerve to edge over the line and spark wild celebrations in the crowd.
Northern Ireland started brightly, briskly taking a 5-1 lead in an opening period which gave no indication of the seesaw nature of the rest of the contest which was about to unfold.
As Zimbabwe clawed their way back into the game, captain Caroline O’Hanlon dictated play for Northern Ireland, working tirelessly to provide opportunities for Noleen Armstrong and Emma Magee. At the other end, Joice Takaidza was keeping the scoreboard ticking over for Zimbabwe, although her attacking partner Ursula Ndlovu was struggling to find space in the shooting circle, and Northern Ireland finished the quarter 15-12 up.
Zimbabwe’s defence tightened in the second quarter, with Armstrong less clinical – she missed two opportunities as Zimbabwe reduced the deficit to just a single goal.
The atmosphere – already electric – continued to build as the two sides traded blows in what was becoming one of the best games of the tournament so far.
Despite the rising pressure though, Takaidza was a calming, composed presence in the Zimbabwean attack, as the Zim Gems edged in front for the first time in the contest shortly before half time. They ended the second quarter by reversing the score of the first, meaning that for the first game in the tournament half-time was reached with the scores level – 27-27.
The spine-tingling atmosphere continued into the second half of the contest, but it was Northern Ireland who settled to their task better, pulling away by four goals in the third quarter.
The evenly-matched nature of the two teams ensured that the lead didn’t last long though, and thanks in the main to the accuracy of Takaidza, Zimbabwe clawed their way back to even the scores again.
In the final minute of the quarter, the Zim Gems edged ahead again through substitute Sharon Bwanali, only for Magee to level proceedings at 39-39 going into the final quarter.
The back-and-forth nature of an absorbing contest continued deep into the final quarter, with Zimbabwe getting themselves just in front as the closing minutes approached.
With five minutes to go, Takaidza took their lead back out to two, and followed that up with a fantastic one-handed take and composed finish to ensure that the pressure mounted on Northern Ireland.
Magee responded by drawing the Warriors level at 49-49, but they couldn’t capitalise on having the next centre pass, giving away a contact foul as they approached the Zimbabwean circle.
Both teams then traded errors as the atmosphere reached fever pitch, and a fumble by the Northern Irish attackers proved crucial as Zimbabwe re-took the lead through Ndlovu with 80 seconds left.
Fittingly, it was Takaidza who then all-but ended the contest, putting her side 51-49 ahead – a lead which they held on to for the 55 seconds which remained, to claim a famous win.
Zimbabwe’s Ursula Ndlovu said:
“I wanted to cry at the end! I’m just happy – I don’t know what to say! The is one of the most challenging games I’ve played – it was very tough. The Zimbabwe fans – I want to say that I love them all! We try to make them proud.
“I’m so proud because our supporters are representing our country. There are so many supporters – they boost our confidence and we can’t disappoint them.”
Northern Ireland captain Caroline O’Hanlon said:
“We’re pretty gutted. We gave it everything but we made too many errors. We made errors across the four quarters and they were costly in the end – the game was there for the taking and we should have closed it out.”
Vitality Nations Cup
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