Sparks claim maiden Premier League title

UTS St George Sparks have been crowned the 2017 Samsung Premier League Under 20s Champions after defeating Panthers, 55-49, in a thrilling Grand Final match.

From the very start, it was clear that the contest was set to be a blinder between the two rivals.

While Panthers WD Liana Hogarth was able to steal an intercept off the Sparks’ opening centre pass, it was UTS who managed to sink the first goal of the match after winning a defensive rebound in their defensive circle.

The tone was set ­– both teams were ready to give the match their all … and even the slight mishap of the netball exploding mid-quarter was not enough to distract the players from their ultimate goal.

Once a new ball was introduced, it was the Panthers who found momentum to take an early lead.  Sparks struggled to find free space in their attacking third, with the Panthers defensive end clustering their opponents together as well as constantly on the hunt for turnover opportunities.

Heading into the game as the best attacking side in the competition, Panthers used this to full effect early when the ball, brought quickly down the court, found GS Nalani Nyasha Makunde under the post.

However, Sparks GK Matilda McDonell continued her impressive form from the Preliminary Final by stepping up her efforts against Makunde. This lifted her teammates to up the ante, and was enough to sow doubt in the Panthers’ circle feeds and slow their attacking momentum.

UTS was quick to capitalise and, finding their feet (and space) in attack, started to chase Panthers on the scoreboard.

The lead continued to switch hands throughout the first half and, while Panthers had a slim 12-11 lead at the first break, UTS were able to turn the tables to go into the big break with a 23-22 advantage. The stage was set for a second half showdown.

When the teams re-emerged for the third quarter, it was the Sparks who had an immediate impact – it’s not called the Premiership quarter for nothing. Within the first five minutes UTS had pushed their lead out to seven goals, putting themselves in a strong position as the clock ticked down.

However the game was far from secure for Sparks, and an intercept from Panthers GK Renee Mihaere in the opening minutes of the final quarter inspired her teammates to lift.

A second swooping intercept form Mihaere, with the ball flying down court in three quick passes to be converted by GA Alana Stechiwskyj, sent the Panther supporters wild as the possibility of a late comeback looked in sight.

With three goals in it, the Panthers’ final surge looked dangerous and UTS would need to put everything on the line to secure the win.

Two intercepts from McDonnell, and a third from Centre Kaitlyn Fisher, proved crucial to securing the win for Sparks, who were able to withhold the Panthers charge to finish 2017 Champions by six goals, 55-49.

Quarter-by-Quarter Scores
SPARKS | Q1: 11 – Q2: 23 (12) – Q3: 40 (17) – Q4: 55 (15)
PANTHERS | Q1: 12 – Q2: 22 (10) – Q3: 33 (11) – Q4: 49 (16)

Starting Line-Ups
SPARKS | GS Georgia Westwood, GA Madeline Eaton, WA Tahisha Hunt, C Kaitlyn Fisher, WD Te-arn Bradley, GD Paige Pirotta, GK Matilda McDonell

PANTHERS | GS Nalani Nyasha Makunde, GA Megan Bull, WA Chelsea Bolton, C Rylee Towell, WD Liana Hogarth, GD Maddison Mann, GK Renee Mihaere

Shooting Statistics
SPARKS: 55/67 @ 82%
G. Westwood: 31/37 @ 84%
M. Eaton: 24/30 @ 80%

PANTHERS: 49/59 @ 83%
N. Makunde: 38/43 @ 88
M. Bull: 6/10 @ 60%
A. Stechiwskj: 5/6 @ 83%