Mystics U14s penultimate Northern Conference of the season at Tameside had as much riding on it as a 3 jockeyed horse in terms of both league position and, as far as the girls were concerned, all-important bragging rights. The winners would almost certainly be conference runners-up to Nottingham and go into the play-offs as #4 seeds, guaranteeing 2 potential home games up to the Final Fours against seed #13 (probably Derby) and then, if successful, seed #5 (probably Haringey.) The losers could not hope to be seeded any higher than #7 which would mean only 1 home game and a tough away game in the quarter finals.
A reshuffled first five brought about by (justified) absence from training took the floor, knowing we would have to attack Tameside’s very effective press and find ways to restrict the prolific scoring of their #6, Maddy Owen. We had managed to do both very well in the home fixture which we won comfortably but today would be different.
We were faced with a court which had more lines than a Shakespeare play, a supportive home crowd and opponents desperate to avenge the loss from game one. it was a local derby, so local that several of the girls play in the same school side as one another and are good friends for most of the time. All this made it nothing short of a showdown! It was City v United, Arsenal v Totteringham, Bury v Rochdale! Even the referees (who were both excellent) were expecting a ‘very close game.’
We, too, had our usual loyal band of supporters so this game couldn’t have been played in a library. Even Beethoven would have been able to hear the noise! After a nervy couple of minutes, we settled down well and had the upper hand for most of the first quarter, taking a 15-9 lead despite missing more straightforward opportunities than normal, mainly due to rushing. Then with 2 minutes to go in the quarter, someone must have pushed the ‘feel free to do daft things’ button. We fell apart like an over-cooked leg of lamb, making more mistakes than I made on my first, disastrous driving test in about 1925! This allowed Tameside back into it at 15-14 and would have been even worse had they not missed all 3 of their free throws.
The mini-hangover looked in danger of becoming a maxi one for the first 5 minutes of the second period as our opponents went 20-22 up. I’m pleased to report that this was as bad as it got. The use of a cattle prod would have been my preferred option but, instead, I resorted to psychology to try to turn things round. Of course, it helps that this group of young ladies are incredibly tough mentally and never see anything as a lost cause. I’m going to write this next paragraph slowly, partly because both people who read this rubbish are slow readers and partly because I still can’t quite believe it myself.
For virtually the whole of the remaining 25 minutes Mystics were as irresistible as the finest cream cakes are to a hungry, greedy fat man with a sweet tooth. Purely by being more composed, we ran in an incredible 62 more points with all 10 team members playing their part either on court or on the bench as cheer leaders. Try as they might, Tameside were no more able to stem the flow than King Canute was whenever.
Each Mystic merits an honorable mention. Charli Wroe was outstanding. She dashed up and court like Usain Bolt. The only difference was that she’s small, white and female. He’s not! Holly Bryan ought to be nicknamed ‘Super Glue.’ This has nothing to do with solvent abuse. She simply holds everything together for us at both ends of the floor. She, too, stood out. Our ace defender, Courtney Kenyon-Betts was given the unenviable task of trying to subdue the physically bigger and stronger Maddy Owen, a role she had carried out almost to perfection in the first meeting. This time it proved more problematic but she again did a fine job here and in managing to nullify the press. Lucy Bryan makes me feel tired just watching her play! She puts me in mind of the Spencer Davis song of the 1960s, ‘Keep on running.’ She never stopped! Her body must contain more energy than a whole crate of Lucozade. Lilja Toland is a good listener and continues to improve. She gave us a performance as polished as a shelf load of Pledge, particularly on defence where she made more steals than the Artful Dodger and played with her usual aplomb to give a masterclass in how to play on and off the ball defence.
Off the bench, Ellie Atherton once more found herself matched up largely with much bigger players. This never daunts her and she showed her usual determination and doggedness. She worked extremely hard and gave us defensive stability when we needed it most despite being knocked over more often than a punch-drunk boxer! Beth McLoughlin played a big part in our initial revival, going hard to basket to get to the foul line and converting most of her free throws. Foul trouble did again limit her minutes but when not on court her input was equally valuable. She was our choir mistress and this helped spur her team on to such an emphatic victory. Ellie Hatton played every second of the third quarter and gave us a classic example of how to play help defence without fouling. Yes, without fouling! (In joke!) She has the capacity to sniff out danger and can be justifiably proud of her contribution. Lauren Addy was going to be our foil to Tameside’s biggest player, G. Ikeh. However, G. Ikeh did not get on court so unfortunately, Lauren got less playing time than most of her team-mates on this occasion. That said, during her 2 spells on court, she played with assurance and confidence, rebounded well and got better and better defensively. Last but by no means oldest, Olivia Forster, with 2 years still left at this level, again did not look out of place. She got stuck in, as always, providing positive moments on and off the ball. She will be a force to be reckoned with in the coming seasons.
Thanks to James, Sammy and Ethan for their unswerving assistance. Thanks, too, to all those who gave their whole-hearted support which we can’t do without.
Next up, on Sunday, we host an accomplished Derby side and will need to be fully focused if we are to avoid what all ice-skaters fear- a slip up!