I’m not sure if it’s a good thing to be thrown in at the deep end or not. It’s how I was ‘taught’ to swim but it didn’t enable me to go on to win an Olympic gold medal in the 100 metres front crawl! I digress (as I often do). Before last Saturday, only 4 of Mystics new U14 twelve strong squad had ever represented the club at national league level and 2 of the 4 had had – not many people stutter when they write! – limited experience. Not ideal when your first conference game of the season is Sheffield away. (Never an easy fixture for all sorts of reasons.)
Would we sink or would we swim better than I can? In the event, we swam as well as anything aquatic. Prior to game, I was convinced I knew the make-up of their side. (Players not brand of lipstick, eye shadow etc.) I expected just 1 major player from last season’s team which reached the Final Fours to be involved. More incompetence! It turned out to be as many as 4. What I assumed would be akin to a test on the 11 times table had instantly become upgraded to an A level pure maths examination, particularly as 1 of the 4 was England U16 squad member, Abby Whitehouse.
I began with the under-sized 5 of Lily Hayes, Charli Wroe, Olivia Forster, Emily Wood and Jo Vourliotis. (Our 2 biggest players, Zara Masada-Tate and Eleni Vourliotis are both injured.) It became instantly apparent that we were as fit for purpose as several Presidents of the USA have been in recent times. We were confronted with too many physical match-up problems and soon trailed 2-6 in front of a healthy crowd. (None of them looked ill!)
We desperately needed someone to compete on the boards so I brought on the supremely athletic Kizzi Spence. Within 4 minutes, Kizzi helped turn the opening skirmishes in our favour. We now led 10-6 and despite our relative inexperience, looked to be the equals of our prestigious opponents. Our young players then held their nerve to shade the first quarter 15-13 as the closing 3 minutes consisted almost exclusively of our Charli driving to basket, being unceremoniously whacked and composing herself to convert the resultant free throws and their Abby powering her way through either on blistering give n goes or running through (literally) our defenders to secure offensive rebounds and convert unerringly.
Things got even better for us at the beginning of the second period. Our decision making remained sound and confidence continued to grow. Lily was doing a fine job containing Abby which severely hampered Sheffield’s scoring options. The hosts were having difficulty containing the skill and speed of Charli, Olivia and Kizzi. Over a productive 11 minute stretch, we outscored the opposition 22-10 which meant that with 14 minutes gone, we led 24-16. It then looked as if it would become 26-16 as Kizzi flew (she has wings!) past 3 defenders en route to basket. Unfortunately, she and a fourth defender collided heavily enough for this to be Kizzi’s final act on the day. She spent the rest of the day in A & E and was greatly missed.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, it coincided with Sheffield subsequently being awarded as many as 16 free throws in the remaining 5 minutes (the equivalent of a world record 128 if repeated over a full game)! These 2 things enabled our opponents to go from 8 points down to 4 up- just 3 short of a well-known fizzy drink! They went into the interval 30-34 to the good and the whole complexion of the contest had been turned on its head.
That said, Mystics took it all in their stride and came out after the interval in a positive frame of mind. The girls’ sheer effort and determination was such that for fully 9 minutes they restricted Sheffield’s potent offense to a mere 2 field baskets, an outstanding achievement by all concerned. Tellingly, however, the home side were awarded a further 8 free-throws, 6 of which were converted. In view of the fact that we were unable to utilise our most productive weapon, the fast break, due to the opposition’s dominance of the boards, we had to seek alternative ways to stay in touch. We did and again, shaded the quarter, 17-16.
This meant we entered the final period with all to play for at 47-50 but we were in foul trouble. Key players Charli, Olivia and 11 year old Daisy Bryan, who, as with the other 2, had made significant contributions at both ends of the floor, plus our leading rebounder, Esha Nayar, were all on either 3 or 4 fouls. Undaunted, in Kizzi’s absence, all 9 remaining Mystics on show- those already mentioned plus 4 more debutants, the tireless Nia Molloy and Emily Wood as well as the battling cousins, Lia and Jo Vourliotis- continued to display great resolve, giving their all for the team. As a result, we again shaded the quarter, 17-16.
Against all the odds, Mystics had managed to win 2 of the 3 quarters contested so far but still trailed 47-50. This was far from insurmountable, provided that we still had the necessary energy and focus to compete at a level previously unvisited by most of the team. We did so for 3 minutes and at 51-55 were like town criers- in with a shout! It seemed to be anybody’s game but Abby Whitehouse had other ideas. She used her physical superiority effectively enough to dominate proceedings for the next telling 4 minutes. She proved unstoppable and almost single-handed forged a crucial 15 point lead for her side. Far from crumble, Mystics dug deep and rallied to cut the margin to 8 and closing before running out of time.
Almost everyone likes to win but sometimes the performance is just as important as the result. This was one such occasion. Every Mystic did herself and her club proud with the manner in which they conducted themselves on and of court. It is very much to their credit that Sheffield’s accomplished coaching staff felt so threatened that they decided to give only 6 of their 10 players anything like meaningful court time. Of those 6, our gallant young team succeeded in almost completely nullifying 4 of them but we could not match up with the other 2 who were good enough and strong enough to amass a match-winning combined 58 points.
Our players will have gained an enormous amount of game experience (as well as plenty of bruises) which will undoubtedly stand them in good stead for the remainder of the season. Thank you so much to all parents and supporters, plus helpers-in-chief, James, Sam and Carys for your assistance and cooperation. It is much appreciated.
Next up on 22 October at 12.30 is a (very) local derby against Mystics II.