The MG Mystics were forced to dig deep before clinching a hard-fought 54-51 win in a tantalising contest with near neighbours, the Robinhood Stars in Auckland on Sunday.

In a match that always has an extra edge and with the Northern Challenge Trophy on the line, the Stars made a huge improvement on the first instalment of the three-game series after the Mystics stunned them by 24 goals just two weeks ago.

The Mystics had to rely on the quality of their all-round depth, keeping their noses in front throughout but always having to look over their shoulder as the Stars refused go away. From positions of relative comfort, there was no room for relaxing.

Down by eight halfway through the final quarter, the Stars showed plenty of fighting spirit, a run of five goals helped narrow the gap to just two as the cut and thrust played out until the final whistle.

With both teams playing 24 hours earlier, the only tinkering for the Stars was with Holly Fowler getting the start at wing defence. For the Mystics, electric midcourter Peta Toeava got the start at wing attack, in her 100th national league match, while Fa’amu Ioane got the nod at wing defence.

Once settled into their work, both teams produced some sparkling passages of play on attack in a high-scoring opening.

Midcourters Gina Crampton and Mila Reuelu-Buchanan showed a mix of patience and slick releases to get the get ball into Maia Wilson’s hands, the shooter responding with a fine start through her accuracy and movement.

For the Mystics, the delivery was often quicker from Toeava and Tayla Earle, who dished up a number of precise long bomb feeds into the ready target of towering shooter Grace Nweke.

There were few opportunities for the defenders to get their hands on turnovers, the Mystics edging to a 16-14 lead at the first break.

The Mystics got away to a flyer on the resumption, restricting the Stars to just one goal in the opening five minutes as they stormed out to an eight-goal advantage. With the home side’s shooters going off the boil against the constant defensive pressure exerted by Sulu Fitzpatrick and Phoenix Karaka, the signs looked ominous for the Stars.

Brilliant at times, the Mystics were also guilty of overplaying their hand and losing their shape, providing an opening for the Stars to clamber their way back.

Wilson re-found her touch under the hoop while evergreen defender Anna Harrison and her stablemate Elle Temu created hesitancy when tightening the screws on the Mystics shooters.

That resulted in the gap being closed, the Mystics rounding at the half with a reduced deficit when leading 28-25.

Goal attack Filda Vui and wing defence Michaela Sokolich-Beatson were injected for the second half as the Mystics looked to regain their poise and they quickly forged out to five-goal lead.

The Stars were getting enough ball but couldn’t make the most of their opportunities, shooting wobbles proving costly. Amorangi Malesala took over from Wilson with Kayla Johnson replacing Folwer, a re-energised Stars doing a fine job of working their way back into the contest.

With Crampton playing a strong hand on attack for the Stars and Malesala shooting everything that came her way, the Mystics braced for an all-out home side assault when taking a 44-39 lead into the last turn.