The honour of appearing in a Final Fours is reserved for a tiny percentage of players. Sadly, Covid denied this experience to the excellent Mystics U14 teams of 2019-20 and 2020-21. This meant the last U14 team to get this far was my 2018-19 team who defeated Richmond in the semi-final and Ipswich in the Final. If the current team was to emulate them, we would be required to do so in reverse.
Ipswich had surprised even themselves by beating the more fancied St Albans and Bristol Flyers sides to get here. It immediately became apparent last Saturday that a third shock would be as unlikely as Donald Trump winning Mastermind. The contest was effectively over after just 10 minutes. That’s how long, or how short, it took Ruvimbo Chinamasa, Lola Sheehan, Maisie Keyes, Sonia Matei, Katie Smith, Paige Jagger and Irene Oboavwoduo to combine for a massive 29-0 scoreline.
Maxima Kalombo and Arafa Dadi soon added their names to the list, paving the way to also introduce Amiyah Warburton and Nadia Gonzales before half-time. Such was our dominance that I was able to give all 11 Mystics ample playing time so that everyone felt fully part of the occasion knowing that liberal substitutions would almost certainly not be possible in the Final.
Our 95-24 victory saw points shared fairly equitably but such an easy win was scant preparation for the following day, other than being able to limit the minutes of Maisie and Irene who were also involved with Mystics U16s. Richmond Knights don’t wear armour or carry swords but they were the only other unbeaten U14 girls basketball side in England. I watched them closely in their semi-final against Leicester Riders which both Psychic Sally and Mystic Meg predicted would result in an easy victory. It didn’t, principally because they were as complacent as the giant Goliath was in his skirmish with the boy David. It was clear that they relied heavily on four very quick guards driving to basket. They were also in love with the 3 point shot. Fortunately for Leicester, the 3 point shot was less enamoured with those who chucked it up.(They took 10 and missed 9.)
More pertinently, I was as unimpressed with their defence as I am with any of Boris Johnson’s excuses. Knights struggled to cope with Leicester’s aggressive driving (the players, not the man behind the wheel in their minibus) which is something several of our girls excel in. Each of these aspects helped me formulate my game plan for the following day. It would be essential to get my defensive match-ups spot on to minimise any easy baskets in the paint and also maximise our fast break production by out-running them up and down the floor. If we could commit fewer turnovers than them and create more high percentage shots than them, so much the better.
My principle concern was how to contain Richmond’s England star, Neve Rugette, considered by the club’s coaching staff to be the ‘best U14 girl player in the country.’ She took something of a back seat in the semi, but nevertheless showed she has more moves than a bowl of jelly in an earthquake. It also bothered me that it was most unlikely that they would be so off target from 3 point range two games running. This Mystics side is blessed with more than it’s fair share of capable on the ball defenders. We would need to ascertain which 5 or 6 would be the most effective today.
It took no time (well, a minute or two) for Ruvimbo to show her class to inspire us to a 6-0 start. This became 10-4 as our opponents soon showed they were far more focused than against Leicester. Then, in less time than it takes to burn a slice of toast, Richmond took the lead 12-13 as a speculative 3 pointer apologetically crept over the front of the rim. Game on ! I felt this was a signal to make a substitution. I brought on Paige, mainly for her defensive qualities in this instance. Rather than claiming it was an inspired move, I prefer to give Paige the credit for her efforts, which prompted a game-changing 13-3 run. Our tireless approach restricted their scoring to just one 3 pointer and nothing else in the remaining 4 and a half minutes of the opening quarter which we won 25-16. A nine point advantage gave us daylight against the Knights (lol) but no more than that.
This was not going to be an occasion to take any risks.
A different line-up to start the second period did well offensively, but caused a defensive imbalance which enabled the opposition to cut into our lead (but only like a warmish knife through fairly hard butter.) The lead was now down to six. Arafa took exception to this and quickly brought it to ten with two baskets from steals. As we approached half-time, it was still anyone’s game at 35-30. I reverted to what I consider to be our strongest defensive unit. The response was as comforting as a whole packet of doughnuts. By the interval, the lead was back to ten at 46-36, despite being able to use as many as 9 players.
During half-time, I re-iterated the game plan and reassured everyone that the team who make the least errors would be victorious. The response was heart-warming. A phenomenal opening to the third stanza – a pretentious word used by coaches who can’t spell qourter, sorry, quarter – resulted in a brilliant 15-4 run in a mere three and a half minute spell which saw Maisie and Irene prove to be as unstoppable as a lava flow. That said, even this did not deflate Richmond. They trimmed five points off our lead so that frequent substitutions remained a huge gamble.
By the start of the fourth quarter, our fifteen point advantage meant that it had become a matter of making less mistakes than I made during my ‘A’ level exams. There was a scare when the margin was reduced to only nine with six minutes remaining. Fortunately, this team has become mentally very strong and a thoughtful end game kept our gallant opponents at bay so that by the final whistle, the difference was back up to 15 at 90-75.
Statistically, most aspects worked out as James and I hoped they would. Our focus on beating them up and down court afforded us 27 fast break points to their 5. We limited them to 30 points in the paint, compared to our 68. We forced 30 turn-overs which yielded 35 points and committed just 17 ourselves which conceded 12 points. They did shade rebounds and were more accurate from the free throw line. As expected, their 3 point shooting could only improve and it did, dramatically. 9 from 22 attempts gave them 27 points, but the misses did contribute to our fast break opportunities.
It only remains for me to thank three groups of people who made this such a successful season. In random order, these are the 11 talented, delightful and dependable young ladies who won us every U14 game they played in and who were an absolute pleasure to coach, as well as every parent/relation who assisted us with their unwavering support, table officiating and taxi driving plus the magnificent volunteer staff comprising assistant coach James and team manager Karen. We couldn’t have done it without you.
Many thanks and best wishes