Going into Saturday’s semi-final (for free if you had a lanyard) against Richmond Knights (who had their breakfast together around a round table!), I felt we had a slight psychological advantage (I’m surprised I can spell that) in that we were like an egg before it’s made into an omelette – unbeaten – whereas they had lost twice to us in earlier friendlies (If there is such a thing in competitive sport).
This, however, would count for as little as what I like about the world’s most arrogant football manager (JM) i.e. nothing if our young team let their nerves get the better of them. In an attempt to settle them, I considered using a cattle prod but plumped for asking them to try to be excited rather than nervous (but not too excited). No bouncing off the ceiling as if they’d scoffed 3 packets of Haribos!
Having travelled down to play Richmond twice, I was aware of what to expect from their well-coached, hard-working group of thoroughly likeable young athletes. Defensively, they are like dry cleaners – they press! Offensively, they rely on driving to basket (rather than taking the bus or walking) and have 3 very capable left-handed guards plus a talented England off-guard. (I was hoping she would be!)
Their captain is extremely adept at stealing the ball off the dribble so my plan was to use 2 guards to pass the ball through the press to negate this. Their team lacks any genuine height so I was confident we could out-rebound them. Defensively, I believed we could match-up our best defenders with their highest scorers.
In the event, possibly more by luck than judgement – and this is where you are all supposed to interject and say ‘of course it wasn’t by luck’ – the plan worked more efficiently than Arsenal’s tactics do these days and outstanding team defence restricted our opponents to a mere 12 points in the whole of the first half. In their brief match summary, BE described our defence as ‘stingy’ which must be the only time this word has been used as a compliment (assuming we don’t mind being associated with Scrooge or my uncle Dave who is as tight as a 20 stone man in a size 8 shirt.)
The 11 Mystics responsible for being so uncharitable to our opponents were, in number order, Anna Collier, Holly Stones, Jouna Albaid, Daisy Bryan, Emily Taylor (3 of whom are eligible to play at this level next season), Olivia Forster, who sadly isn’t, Anita Oboavwodou (who also sank 3 out of 4 free throws), Saffron Murphy, Esha Nayar, Jo Vourliotis and Eleni Vourliotis.
Leading by as many as 20 at half-time at 32-12 meant that it was now a question of maintaining composure and keeping things simple to minimise mistakes. In a low key second half, the girls did just that but still managed to extend the margin to 27 before relaxing a tad too much near the end – one or two of them had actually dropped off and snoring could be heard! With every Mystic getting well into double-figure minutes on court, we ran out worthy winners. The whole team contributed positively but specific mention goes to Daisy, Emily, Olivia and Saffron for preventing any of their usually high-scoring immediate opponents from getting double figures, to Eleni, Anita and Esha for their rebounding prowess, to Olivia, Saffron and Emily for leading all scorers and to Jo, Holly, Jouna and Anna for their highly effective help defence. Keeping such a competent team as Richmond to 38 points meant that no U14 team had yet managed to score 50 or more against us all season.
It would be a big ask, given the importance of the occasion and the ability of whoever we played in Sunday’s National Final, but if we could maintain that proud record, we would have a great chance of being crowned national champions. My task now was to assess our potential opponents in their semi-final and make notes that I could read afterwards! To be continued!