Manchester Thunder produced a strong second-half performance to take victory over a gutsy Team Northumbria at the Thunderdome.
The Black and Yellows were made to work for their win, with Northumbria going toe-to-toe with the home side for the majority of the first half.
But Thunder’s class finally came through after half time and, led by a prolific Liana Leota, who was deservedly named player of the match, they opened up a quickfire 15-goal lead to take the bite out of Northumbria’s resistance.
Coach Karen Greig was frustrated with her team’s under-par first half performance but ultimately pleased her players were able to get over the line with a second victory in three days,
Greig said: “It was frustrating really and I thought that last quarter when we went 15 up..I thought we had the capacity to push on and win by more and I think we got a little bit sloppy and took the foot off the gas and let them back into it.”
The former England shooter experimented with a number of player combinations, and was particularly happy with Sophie Morgan, who has been pushing for a start following a number of confident off-the-bench appearances.
She added: “We thought we’d give Sophie the nod tonight as she’s being doing well when she’s come on so we wanted to give her the opportunity. She didn’t do anything wrong we just needed a little bit more stability as they were taking goals of us quickly so we just needed to make sure we had a more defensive line up.
“Bea was taken off as a precaution.”
Captain Emma Dovey was disappointed with her side’s lacklustre start to the game.
“I think we started slow but obviously, we had a great second half until the last five minutes and we now need to learn how to cut teams out and not let them back into it,” she said.
“I think our ball speed through court killed them we just now need to make sure we’re giving it and be confident with it.”
Team Northumbria tested Thunder’s resolve in the reverse fixture earlier in the season and tonight at the Thunderdome was no different.
Thunder were on the front foot in the opening exchanges but Northumbria gradually grew into the game and worked out how to shut out Thunder’s attack.
Speed in the centre court wasn’t a problem for Thunder, with Sophie Morgan and Leota combining well, but they had to work hard to get the ball to a double-marked Joyce Mvula.
Tuaine Keenan had Mvula’s number from the very first whistle but the Malawi star battled hard and managed to find space as her shooting partner, Kathryn Turner, continued to score shots from distance.
It was a disappointing end to the first period with Thunder losing their momentum and giving up possession too easily.
It gave Northumbria the impetus to close the gap in the scores – which had opened up to six goals at one point – to level terms by the first break (11-11).
Coach Greig changed things up at the start of the second by bringing on Amy Clinton, who slipped effortlessly into the game, no easy feat against the imposing Keenan.
Morgan’s blistering pace was really troubling Northumbria’s Brie Grierson and her skill around the circle edge was benefiting Thunder in both attack and defence.
But Thunder were in need of bulking up their defence and Morgan was given a well-earned rest as Bea Skingsley came on at wing defence as Gabby Marshall switched to centre.
That change did the trick as Thunder took control of the second quarter and finished strongly to lead 26-19 at half time.
Skingsley didn’t reappear after the break and Beccy Hoult was brought into the battle at centre but that combination didn’t quite click and Greig sured up her defence by putting Dani Bloomfield at wing defence, who made an instant impact with a swift intercept.
Meanwhile, Marshall had moved back to her favoured centre position and Thunder started to relax and play with more confidence.
There was a personal tussle going on between Dovey and Ciara Semple, while Leota decided to take the game on herself and was the catalyst for a phase of blistering play that took Thunder out of sight, as they opened up a 15-goal lead.
The New Zealander snaked her way through a wall of Northumbria defenders as Clinton pushed for space in the circle and Turner slotted in her signature long-shots.
Thunder were also having more success in defence, with keeper Kerry Almond trading intercepts and tips with her partner Dovey.
The home side had tightened their marking up across court and Northumbria couldn’t seem to get near the ball.
Clinton’s javelin-like arms speared a number of Marshall’s feeds and the Black and Yellows started to enjoy their netball.
Thunder did just enough in the final period to fend off a Northumbria fightback, but they failed to kick on and they really should have won by a bigger margin.
There were instances of class from Thunder as the clock ticked down to keep the crowd interested, with captain Emma Dovey ghosting in for a steal and Leota’s twinkle toes still doing the talking, but their tempo slowed too much and the game petered out.
It wasn’t a pretty win but Thunder will be happy to take two wins from a busy Bank Holiday schedule and stay in the mix for a play-off place, with just five games remaining in the regular Superleague season.
PHOTO CREDIT: Mark Pritchard