Ideally, the principal objective for any good junior basketball team is to reach the Final Fours. Mystics U14s comfortably achieved this by way of a 90% winning league record plus commanding play-off victories over Derby and the mighty Haringey Angels. Our reward was a tough semi-final date against the country’s number 1 seeds, Richmond Knights. As they usually do, our young team rose imperiously to the challenge to come out on top in all 4 quarters to seal an impressive 51-37 victory over well-organised, hard-working, highly efficient opponents.
In essence, we won all 3 of these games on the back of superb team defence and superior free throw shooting. (This needs bearing in mind for later!) Having made it to the National Final, we awaited the outcome of the Sevenoaks-Sheffield game. We had already beaten Sheffield twice but knew little of Sevenoaks. Sevenoaks squeezed through and it was readily apparent that they were heavily reliant on their talented international guards, the much-vaunted , sharp-shooting, highly experienced Asha Andrews and the athletic, high-scoring, Scrabble winning Tamari Fournillier-Onadeko. They also had a sky-scrapingly tall, mobile centre with a never-ending wing span in Mushore Chennai who did not feature much against a big Sheffield side but who might cause us problems due to our acute lack of size.
Being such a relatively small side, our game plan was as straightforward as ever. We would try to outrun our opponents and give them as little as possible of the dribble going to basket by playing our perfectly legal sagging man-to-man defence which had seen no team score above 52 points all season in 26 games. For the opening 7 minutes, our starters did just that, putting on a fast break clinic to lead 18-8. The blistering pace we had set was such that the duo leading the onslaught, Charli Wroe and Lucy Bryan were now desperately in need of a well-earned rest, as indicated by a couple of late misses. The necessary changes cost us dear in that it interrupted our rhythm at both ends of the court. We became passive and Sevenoaks cashed in as if it was the January sales via a telling 2-13 run in just 3 minutes to make it 20-21 by the end of the first quarter, with only Ellie Atherton able to score for us.
The girls came out intent on upping the tempo again and the irrepressible Holly Bryan gave us a 22-21 lead prior to a bizarre incident in the second minute of the second quarter took the wind out of our sails. Completely out of the blue, one referee signalled a technical foul. All I could come up with was that it must be on the Sevenoaks coach for shouting at him too much. ( I could not make out what she was saying because of the noise being made by the amazing support we were getting.) I was wrong. To my utter astonishment, it was against me! I had done nothing untoward and had received no kind of warning so I asked what for. Only then was I told that their coach was complaining that we were playing a zone and the refs concluded our number 6 was in a zone. (All by herself?) I replied that our number six was actually not on court. They hesitated, looked round and now decided it was our number 5 who was as guilt as OJ Simpson.
What had actually occurred was that both our players had been detailed to mark the opposition’s weakest player. Whichever 1 of 4 this was did as they had in the semi-final – impersonate a statue. Each of them stood virtually still 20 feet from basket seemingly paralysed by fear, all but totally ignored by their team-mates and no more involved offensively than the spare chair at the side of the court. Consequently. whichever Mystic was ‘defending’ them did not have to do so. Rather than stand next to them for a chat, completely away from the action and of no use to us, ours were told to play help on the opposition’s 2 main threats- a legitimate, no-brainer tactic, or so I thought.
I explained clearly and concisely to the referees exactly what type of man-to-man defence were were playing and precisely why it was not a zone. They listened politely, accepted my explanation and changed their opinion to ‘it looks like zone.’ They still gave me the technical and said our help side had to be closer to their player. This prompted me to ask them to keep an eye on the Sevenoaks big centre who had found a comfortable spot smack in the middle of either key which she liked so much that she virtually took root. They said they would but must either have forgotten to do so or have been unable to spot her considerable 6′ 2 frame. Not to worry!
I now had to waste a time-out to inform our bewildered players that the defence they had been playing all season was now not allowed and we would have to make an unwanted, unwarranted adjustment. To their credit, they took it in their stride and seemed unaffected but, coincidentally, Sevenoak’s centre became a far bigger influence on procedings from now on and with more space to work in added 6 quick points to help turn our slender lead into a 7 point deficit at 27-34. Thankfully, a 3 and a 2 from Beth McLoughlin closed the gap to 4 by half-time with a 32-36 scoreline.
A positive start after the break, with 2 buckets from Holly brought it to 36-38 before the height of Mushore and the sheer brilliance of Asha began to take the game away from us. We found ourselves down by 12 but as is the norm with this group of Mystics, the team showed tremendous spirit and mental toughness to reduce it to 4 at 49-53, only for Asha to hit an unanswered 3 plus 4 out of 4 free-throws to make it 51-62 by the end of the third.
I had alternated my 2 best, very capable on the ball defenders, Courtney Kenyon-Betts and Lilja Toland on Asha, picking her up early in an attempt to tire her but when a player at U14 level who can go right or left at speed, can drain step back 3s and hardly miss a free throw is on top form and you are not allowed to double team her, there is little that can be done other than tell her she is wanted outside and then lock the door! Holly had done a wonderful job in restricting Tamari’s offensive threat but we had no real solution to Moshure catching the ball 5 feet from basket and dropping it in. All 4 players we used on her tried their best but even Ellie Hatton’s and Lauren Addy’s strength and aggression counted for nothing due to a lack of boxes to climb on. Consequently, with another full quarter to play, Sevenoaks had already scored 10 points more than any other side had managed against us all season.
At this level, in a contest between 2 even teams, an 11 point margin with 10 minutes remaining constitutes a mountain to climb. Without Sherpas or crampons, I opted to try to climb it by spreading the floor and asking everyone to drive hard to basket. Charli, Holly and Courtney did just that to take us back to within striking distance yet again at 58-64 three minutes into the fourth period. We were in the ascendancy and the next basket would now be of great significance. (4 down if we scored it, 8 if they did.) Cruelly, it went to them via the most unlikely source. The least experienced player on court for them inadvertently got hold of the ball, possibly for the first time. She propelled rather than shot it in the direction of the backboard. It hit it and stumbled through the hoop. No one looked more surprised than she did! Such is sport!
Understandably, this was a real body blow and would have been the last straw for most teams. Not Mystics! Again 11 points down but now with only 5 minutes left, we went on another major assault. 4 unanswered points apiece from Charli and Courtney unbelievably gave us hope of making it a really happy birthday for Olivia Forster at 68-71. We even had 3 more good opportunities to take the lead before 2 close range baskets at the death from Moshure made it appear more comfortable than it was for the new national champions.
Despite falling just short of the ultimate prize, nothing should detract from the phenomenal progress and achievements made by this terrific group of young ladies. if anyone feels the need to analyse why we narrowly missed out, then blame our comparative free-throw shooting on this occasion. Purely down to Asha, from a similar number of attempts, they hit 7 more than we did in a 7 point game. Look no further! Instead, why not congratulate both teams for putting on a tremendous show in what was a truly thrilling final.
Thank you so much to all the fabulous Mystics, to James for being such a supportive, knowledgeable, enthusiastic and helpful assistant and to Sammy for being a brilliant team manager (apart from his man bag!) Thanks also to those parents who provided positive support throughout. We should all be very proud of our young charges.