Coach Jim's Report

Coach Jim’s Report: Mystics U14 at Junior Final Fours

During our first meeting at Belle Vue for the week-end get together, I stressed the need for it to be an enjoyable experience. Players perform better when they enjoy themselves and this was an occasion relatively few across the board are good enough to be involved in. Looking back now, being a group who are as obedient as a highly trained sheep dog, that’s exactly what all 15 of Mystics U14 1 did.

Having performed admirably all season, M1 (the team, not the motorway), we now faced the daunting task of competing with the cream of the south (sounds like a Scottish football team) in the form of Kingston Lions and then, possibly, Milton Keynes (Leg) Breakers. Would these two highly reputable teams rise to the top or curdle?

Fortunately, I was in possession of a lot of very useful information on Kingston from a close coaching friend. This had the potential to see us into another final if I composed an effective game plan. We went into the semi-final having prepared for their press, as well as having plans to nullify their talented left-handed guard and their rebounding potential. On first sight, it was immediately apparent they had a long line (literally) of tall players. I could either ask some of our team to play on stilts or ask them all to jump higher. As the stats show, we opted for the latter to win the battle of the boards 65-54.

For any young athlete, representing one’s club in a show piece event can be as nerve-racking as being forced to climb a mountain when you suffer from vertigo (which is not a star sign.) We were also playing on an unfamiliar court against one of the country’s top four sides. It was, therefore, understandable that we weren’t at our best in the initial stages. (To quote Winston Churchill, the man not the dog: ‘Only mediocre people are always at their best.’) Even so, we did enough to win the first quarter 21-14.

This helped calm the inevitable nerves of both players and parents. As when you are unfortunate enough to go on holiday to the very much mis-named Weston-super-Mare, I knew that better thing were on the horizon. They were. Similar to how a friend of mine takes his coffee, two dashes, one of 11-3 and one of 10-5, afforded us with a comfortable 20 point half-time lead.

I now had scope to be even more liberal with my substitutions and give our starters (3 of whom had rushed over having represented our u16s) a prolonged rest. To their great credit, those off the bench, as opposed to on the bench would would make them lawyers, played well enough and hard enough to extend our lead further. With the lead now a massive 32 points, I had scope to ensure that all 12 players had sufficient time to have an impact. As expected, with Kingston still playing the majority of their starters, including the excellent #33 who now cashed in big time, the lead was reduced down to 25 to leave us with an impressive 89-64 victory.

Predictably, Milton Keynes Breakers had broken down Sheffield to win the other semi-final. James and I (I, not myself!) had watched the game intently and had taken notes from which to formulate our game plan for the Final. It was evident we had to find ways to break their relentless, merciless full court press which had terrorised greater numbers than the Kray twins. They were generally considered to be firm favourites to be crowned as the 2023-24 National Champions by anyone who was unaware of how determined we all were for this not to happen. Our resolve was hardened further by the way they needlessly crushed our u14 II in the quarter final in April. Someone’s unbeaten record had to go. I had to devise a way for it to be theirs, not ours.

Our press break , although simple, worked a treat for all but the last couple of minutes. Their 2 guards had scored 27 points apiece in the semi by driving hard right in a straight line. Our plan to make them go left. In the event, this restricted both unbelievably well until tiredness set in during the last quarter.

In what was all set to be a titanic struggle, the question was who was it that would sink? There were no clues in the first quarter which had three lead changes. The first five minutes was owned by Mojan. For me, she is the best player for her age in the country and she certainly looked like it in the opening skirmishes. We led 12-10. Mojan scored 10 of those, shooting 5 from 7 two pointers. Milton Keynes subsequently did all they could to triple team her in and around the key so that all we could muster for the next five minute were an impressive 5/6 free throws from Anya and Mojan who had to sit out the last three minutes due to being called for two fouls. The second of these was when she was charged with a charge which, if I’d been in charge would have gone uncharged!

Two three pointers from our illustrious opponents, one of which thundered off the backboard with enough force to clean all of the dust on it, helped Milton Keynes (which could be a good name for a comedian?) steal the first quarter 17-18. I stressed the need for a positive start to the second period. More obedience from the girls manifested itself by way of a 13-4 five minute burst which was more explosive than the Gunpowder Plot. Akeala and Mya hit from medium range. More accurate free throws from William Tell and Robin Hood (aka Mojan and Anya) who were getting to the foul line regularly thanks to their positive drives to basket without any need for a chauffeur, plus phenomenal all-out effort from Tiana and cameo appearances from  two of our most improved players, Sophie O and Neeusha with an earlier one from Eniola, all contributed to a one point deficit turning into an 8 point advantage by half-time.

During the interval, I apologised to Lola, Alycia, Elsa and Adele for not being able to get them on court. There was no negative reaction from any of them and each one contributed by demonstrating what an awesome team spirit this team has from the bench. (The same can be said for the trio not involved- Sophie B, Fatima and Lola P.) They are all as responsible as anyone else for our successful season.)

Having effectively countered our opponents’ plan A, I full expected a change of approach from them. They would continue to press, despite it being as ineffective as my attempts to carry out any DIY task. ( For me, it’s Destroy It Yourself.) It came from two unexpected sources. Their # 9 and # 11 had featured as little as an extra in a block buster film in the semi-final and during the first half. To begin the third quarter, however, they became the star turns as their guards finally stopped trying to act as battering rams in vain attempts to smash their way through our excellent interior team defence. They now opted to pull up higher in the key and dish the ball to the weak side low post to score. And score they did, initially.

This prompted me to call a time out to offer up a solution which was acted upon to such good effect that it subsequently worked no better than a broken clock (which is only correct twice a day!) As a result, we increased our lead to 10 going into the crucial final stanza (which isn’t a variety of pizza.) Worryingly, we came out seemingly unprepared for the inevitable onslaught which was bound to be thrown at us. For a couple of minutes, it looked as though Breakers were firing rocket launchers at us while we were trying to respond by waving sparklers at them. Earlier than I would have liked, I called a time out after just three minutes to stop the bleeding.

A ten point lead had been whittled down to a dangerously close five. Understandably, the five players I’d felt the need to use almost exclusively against such challenging opponents, were experiencing a high degree of fatigue due to the enormous physical and mental effort they had put in. I asked each one if they needed to be rested in a ploy to get them to dig even deeper. Each of them declined the offer. I now requested that they go back on court and demonstrate that they had sufficient energy and ability to get the job done.

What a response. All five played out of their skins immediately after the lead had shrunk to 3. An almost super-human team effort, spurred on by fantastic support from the bench and our supporters, inspired an incredible 12-2 run which meant we went into the last 60 seconds 13 to the good. They scored to bring it down to 11 but I now let my heart rule my head by intending to get as many of the four players on court who had yet to appear at all. I brought two on. Then, through no fault of theirs, two quick baskets against us caused widespread panic in the crowd with one or two heart monitors doing overtime as we were now like a fizzy drink and 7 up. This obviously prevented me from bringing the  other two on but calm was instantly restored as Akeala, Mojan and Anya sealed the deal with late baskets to see us through 78-69.

Although we only trailed for 2 minutes 13 seconds in the whole encounter, a breakdown of just how tight each quarter was clearly demonstrates, unfortunately, how difficult it would have been to give all  12 Mystics reasonable court time. After the game and the wild celebrations which ensued, I apologised to the players and parents I failed to use in the game. They all appeared to accept this in good grace in the knowledge that our success wasn’t based on this one game. All 16 squad members are to be acknowledged and appreciated as having contributed in positive fashion.

Post-game, we then had an award I have never been a fan of and see little point to. Victories are achieved by teams, not one individual. We had 5 MVPs on the day and for it to be limited to just one player can be unnecessarily divisive and cause disagreement. All that really matters is that Manchester Mystics are the 2023-24 National Champions, not who should (or shouldn’t) be like David Beckham and have a golden ball. On the same tack, I have been fortunate enough to have 16 MVPs on our rosta. A huge thank you to them, their wonderfully cooperative parents for their unfailing support as well as to James and Louise over an unforgettable season. Congratulations team. You have achieved what we set out to accomplish. You are officially the best U14 girls team in England! 

best wishes