Melbourne Vixens became the fourth team to top an incredibly tight ANZ Championship table this weekend as they overcame Central Pulse 49-41 at Porirua tonight.
Adelaide Thunderbirds began the round as competition leaders, but their loss to Waikato/Bay of Plenty Magic on Saturday saw the Magic assume the top spot. The Northern Mystics slipped past them with victory over Canterbury Tactix, but the Vixens have had the last laugh entering next week's final round.
Pulse coach Robyn Broughton raises a few eyebrows by restoring midcourt Joline Henry to her preferred wing defence position, apparently to match up with in-form Vixens wing attack Madison Browne.
But the Pulse's resurgence this season has co-incided with Henry's move to centre, so this change was a huge risk that was not to pay off.
Neither side showed much cohesion through the opening exchanges, but the Vixens made slightly better use of their opportunities early to draw clear.
Their circle defence of Briton Geva Mentor and captain Bianca Chatfield was almost impenetrable, limiting their rivals' possession under goal. It was more than five minutes before the Pulse's leading scorer, goal shoot Caitlin Thwaites, was allowed her first shot.
And if the home team wasn't already struggling to keep up, they also lost wing attack Katrina Cooper late in the opening quarter, when she landed badly and wrenched her knee.
After the first quarter hour, Melbourne had ridden a five-goal run to a 18-8 lead.
"That start was very costly indeed," reflected Broughton afterwards. "When you look at the statistics, we were basically even, but we weren't good enough in the goal circle against their defence."
But Central tightened up their own defence by introducing Victoria Smith into the last line. They stopped the rot after the restart with three straight goals and then another run of four soon after to cut the deficit to seven.
It shrunk to five late shortly before halftime, but although the hosts enjoyed a 14-10 edge for the period, the Vixens still had control at 28-22.
Momentum swung one way and then the other during the third quarter - Melbourne reeled off five unanswered goals, then the Pulse four, but the visitors clung to a 38-31 margin heading into the final straight.
Central reduced the gap to just four goals with the first three goals of the fourth period and had chances to cut it further. But in an error-strewn contest, they could not maintain enough continuity to keep the pressure on.
Seven minutes from the end, Broughton finally switched Henry back to centre, but she could make little impression over the closing stages.
Chatfield gave her team a 7/10 rating for their performance and warned there was better to come as the semifinals approach.
"When they challenged us, we were able to step up and consolidate our turnovers," she observed. "They've been the most improved next team this year - they've been doing really well."
In the final analysis, the Capital outfit generated almost as many scoring opportunities and their rivals, but converted at just 76 percent, compared with the Vixens' 88 percent.
Melbourne now stay in New Zealand and will end their regular-season against Southern Steel next Saturday, while the Pulse travel across the continent to face West Coast Fever in Perth the next day.