Manchester Thunder remain unbeaten in the Superleague following a 47 – 58 win over Surrey Storm in Guildford.
It was the black and yellows’ first ever victory at Surrey and all but secures a home semi final.
The tension was palpable from the first whistle as the league’s top two teams battled it out for four bruising quarters. Neither side could force any kind of lead in the first three quarters and it was the fourth where the game was won.
Thunder transformed into a rampant beast midway in the final phases, dominating the game in every department. But this was certainly not the case in the preceding 45 minutes, with Storm in touch – and better – than their rivals at certain periods.
The first period was cagey and littered with errors from both sides, who were well aware of the importance of taking victory in this game. Patient attacking play from Storm seemed to buoy their defence and the home side scored four without reply.
It would have been five if not for England captain Pamela Cookey’s foot creeping out of court, handing possession back to the away side.
It was a quarter for the defences, with Emma Dovey and Kerry Almond, especially, working tirelessly to force a turnover. It was end to end stuff and Thunder ended the quarter with a slender 12-14 lead.
There was a breathless start to the second period for Thunder but a wayward pass from Chelsea Pitman gifted Storm the ball and wiped out the visiting side’s lead to level the score.
Some questionable umpire calls knocked the wind out of Thunder. They lost focus, with a usually composed Sara Bayman the main culprit, as the captain engaged in a furious exchange with Surrey player-coach Tamsin Greenway
Well aware there was only a turnover between the sides and plenty of time left in the match, Thunder – and Bayman – refused to panic and regained their composure in the centre third. Helen Housby, who missed only one goal all game, was at her imperious best at shooter.
The game swung back in Thunder’s favour with five minutes of the quarter to play , but despite two interceptions the defending champions still found themselves down by three at half time.
It was a half of both the best and worst Thunder had produced all season. Where passing errors, lack of composure and suspect positional play let them down, their ability to force a sustainable period of possession to unsettle Storm showed their true winning character.
Couple that with Surrey’s disappointing shooting (England shooter Rachel Dunn ended the game with 76 per cent accuracy) they just shaded it.
It must have been some team talk from Thunder coach Tracey Neville because they came out with renewed hunger and purpose for the second half.
Surrey’s new signing Bongiwe Msomi was proving a handful in the centre court for Thunder and showed no signs of jet-lag despite only landing in the country a few hours earlier.
Neither team was able to take control in what had become a boiling pot of tension at Surrey Sports Park.
Housby and Kathryn Turner continued to do their job in the shooting circle while Almond and Gibson, who replaced Dovey at half-time, continued to put pressure on Surrey in the hope of forcing a mistake.
The state of the game was reflected in the scoreline, with the title rivals locked at 39-all at the end of the third.
Thunder started the quarter the better side. Pitman began to show why she is a former world champion, powering a series of rocket feeds into a waiting Housby.
But in the blink of an eye, Thunder’s lead was snipped to just two following a loose pass from Turner. However, she made up for her error seconds later, netting a tough long shot.
Thunder began to frustrate Storm with patient build up play but Storm stayed in touch. The pressure then started to get to Cookey and she was penalised for breaking with the score at 46-49.
Storm heads started to drop and Thunder dared to sense victory with significant daylight between the sides for the first time in the match.
Thunder were now unstoppable and they powered to a deserved 11-point victory.
Laura Malcolm, Thunder player of the match, said: “We’ve never won at the Surrey home ground. I think we just had to keep our heads as it always about the mental side of the game playing those guys and we made less errors. That gave us the edge.”
“In the final quarter I think we just stuck to our game plan and went back to what we had practised in training. We’ve had lots of close games and you don’t always get umpire calls that you want but I think we dealt with it better at certain points of the game.”