Manchester Thunder buckled under the pressure from a revitalised Wasps as they fell to a 58-44 defeat at the Thunderdome.
The Black and Yellows went toe-to-toe with their rivals in the opening period, but a lapse in concentration combined with a ruthless display from Wasps in the second quarter took the game away. In the second half, Thunder never recovered from that damaging passage of play and surrendered the chance to secure a place in the Final Four. Coach Karen Greig was unhappy with her side’s preparation coming into the game, with two of her key players - Amy Clinton and Gabriella Marshal l- missing training all week to take part in England u21 camps. She said: “The scoreline is not what we were looking for but it’s been a difficult week for us and not ideal preparation as we’ve not had the whole squad in at training at all. To lose two of our players out of training has not done us any favours.”
But she had no excuses for her side’s hesitancy in attack and was full of praise for Wasps, who are now the second team confirmed in the play-offs, along with Loughborough Lightning. “We had a slow start but showed flashes of good stuff in the first quarter and went in level,” Greig said. “We turned the ball over four times in the second quarter and didn’t convert any and that allowed Wasps to go on a run of nine. We got punished tonight. Hopefully we will meet Wasps in the semi-final as I think we’ve seen the best of Wasps tonight but definitely not the best of what we can do. We can watch the video, do our homework and put the wrongs right.”
It was a breathless opening period with Wasps setting the tone early-on but Thunder soon woke up and matched their opponents, with the scores locked at 14-all at the end of the first period. But a baffling display of hesitancy and basic errors from Thunder in the second saw them slip from 17-17 to conceding nine goals without reply in a devastating six minutes of play from Wasps.
The visitors were in no mood to show Thunder’s weaknesses any mercy and they punished their lack of creativity, especially in attack. Thunder did have chances to close the deficit following sterling work in defence, led by a player-of-the-match performance from Kerry Almond at keeper, but failed to convert them.
Almond and Wasps shooter Rachel Dunn were locked in battle throughout, but the giant keeper and defence partner Emma Dovey were powerless to stop Wasps’ organised attack at times, as former Thunder star Natalie Haythornthwaite quietly did her job at goal attack.
It was simply a nightmare second quarter for the Black and Yellows as they fell apart in the centre court and attack, suddenly unable to find space as Wasps tightened their defence. Players looked on as loose balls sprayed out of court and the shooters lost their touch. This wasn’t the Thunder we had seen all season and even the creativity and trickery of Liana Leota was unable to penetrate Wasps’ tidy defence as often as it usually would.
Thunder did get some success as half time loomed, scoring three on the bounce but Wasps made sure they stole back the initiative as the whistle blew. They were in front 20-29 and Thunder had a mountain to climb. They were left needing to repeat their heroics in the reverse fixture to pull off what was now an unlikely win.
Greig attempted to inject some life into her limp attack by bringing on Clinton at shooter to replace Mvula. It worked to an extent as Thunder were less static in their approach, but the errors, combined with Wasps’ ability to stifle Thunder’s feeds continued and the home side were seriously starting to sense the game slipping away. Kathryn Turner cut a frustrated figure and was not at her best, which resulted in a rare move this season from Greig, who brought her off for Mvula.
Dani Bloomfield replaced Bea Skingsley at wing defence but she was unable to have any real impact on the game with Wasps now out of sight, apart from a superb rocket pass to a tired-looking Marshall, but she’ll have been disappointed to see it resulted in another turnover. The story of Thunder’s night.
Despite a lacklustre final quarter with a 14-goal gap in the scores too much to bridge, a packed-out Thunderdome cheered Thunder on right to the final shot, which bright spark Clinton scored on the buzzer.
It was a limp end to a strange game, which saw glimpses of greatness from Thunder but ultimately it will be one they’ll hope to forget and move on from as quickly as possible.
And the best way to do that will to beat Hertfordshire Mavericks on Saturday and qualify for Final Four.
Photos by Mark Pritchard :: Report by Denise Evans