Mystics claim game one in Northern Challenge

The Northern Mystics inched a step closer to top spot after winning the first of the Barfoot & Thompson Northern Challenge series 63-60 against cross-town rivals the Robinhood Stars in Auckland tonight.

The bonus point loss helped the Stars retain their status at the top of the table, the Mystics closing to within one after putting out in their most consistent and disciplined showing of the season in the battle of the bridge.

The Stars came home strongly, closing to within two in a tense run home but that was as good as it got for the league pace-setters.

Significantly, the Mystics achieved the result without two of their regular starters in centre Tayla Earle (still recovering from a head knock) and wing defence Fa’amu Ioane (sprained ankle).

Claire O’Brien, Danielle Gray and late inclusion Grace Kukutai rotated the centre/wing defence positions throughout in being key contributors to the Mystics overall success.

Mystics Assistant Coach Rob Wright said the team seemed to have finally shaken off their sluggish starts.

“Our starts have been at best very patchy so I thought tonight we were very solid coming out against a team who have been good starters themselves.”

Wright said that despite the midcourt changes it was a much-improved performance against the top-of-the-table Stars.

“We were pretty disappointed with ourselves last week and tonight was a really good response to last week against a very classy side.

Having three fewer attempts at goal than the Stars, it was towering teenaged shooter Grace Nweke who was the shining light for the Mystics. Well-serviced by the inspiring Peta Toeava, Nweke put a staggering 60 goals through the hoop, missing just the four in total in steering her team to the all-important win.

The Stars opted for a positional change for stalwart Anna Harrison, the long-limbed defender slotting in at wing defence in a bid to limit the vision and feeds into Mystics shooting machine Nweke.

The shift for Harrison wasn’t a total success, her long arms failing to dampen the exploits of her opposite Toeava, who sparkled on attack for the Mystics.

Both teams settled into the work quickly, the Mystics breaking the impasse late in the piece with their constant defensive pressure forcing their near neighbours into error.

Nweke was flawless under the hoop while her Stars opposite Maia Wilson was well-contained by Sulu Fitzpatrick as the Mystics took a handy 17-13 lead into the first break.

With Toeava’s vision and execution a feature of the attack line, it was slim pickings for the Stars defenders on the resumption, the Mystics charging out to a six-goal lead while continuing to threaten.

In her 50th match, centre Mila Reuelu-Buchanan was busy through the midcourt while goalkeeper Oceane Maihi, with four intercepts in the first half, helped haul the Stars back into the contest.

The Mystics remained unflustered, introducing Kukutai to wing defence for her first action at the elite level in two years after concentrating on rugby in recent years, without missing a beat.

Despite some strong patches and an equal share of the ball, the Stars were unable to gain any ascendancy, the accuracy of Nweke propelling the home side to a 34-27 halftime lead.

Needing to lift their intensity and accuracy, the Stars made big changes for the second half. Amorangi Malesala replaced Jamie Hume at goal attack, Lisa Mather came on at wing defence, Harrison shifted to goal defence and Elle Temu went to the bench.

Play-maker Malesala made a strong impact with her accuracy under the hoop while Maihi remained an influential presence throughout. Initially, however, the Stars remained powerless to make any impact on the Mystics eight-goal buffer.

But continuing to contest strongly through all aspects of play in an increasing-willing contest, forced the Mystics to falter in the last few moments of the stanza, giving the Stars an elusive sniff.

The visitors seized on their limited opportunities, Malesala impressing with her cool head to leave the game up for grabs when trimming the Mystics lead to 47-43 at the last turn.

Official Result and Stats: 

Northern Mystics: 63
Robinhood Stars: 60

Champion Data Match Centre

Shooting Stats – Mystics:
Grace Nweke 60/64 (94%)
Bailey Mes 3/3 (100%)

Shooting Stats – Stars:
Maia Wilson 34/38 (90%)
Amorangi Malesala 16/17 (94%)
Jamie Hume 10/15 (67%)

MVP: Grace Nweke (Mystics)