The NSW Swifts are through to the Super Netball decider in Brisbane next week after they played a smart brand of netball and took an early lead in the preliminary final.
Heading into the match most experts — again — wrote the Swifts off and tipped the Melbourne Vixens to back up their dominant performance in the semi-finals last week.
But it seems the underdog tag is what is driving the Sydney team, who were revved up and playing for their lives from the first whistle in the 60-47 triumph.
In a rebuilding phase the past two years with one of the youngest sides in the domestic competition, they were eager right from the launch of this season to prove they were serious contenders.
Having missed the finals and lost the majority of their games in those first two years, many took this pledge with a grain of salt.
Yet they have followed through and defied doubters by finishing high on the ladder and outplaying teams with a lot more experience, all the while suffering three season-ending injuries.
But doubt lingered again when the Swifts lost the major semi-final last Saturday to the Sunshine Coast Lightning, and people started to suggest the Swifts had run out of steam at the backend of the season.
In the previous weeks they had also lost a crucial match against Collingwood, which saw them slip to second place and concede the minor premiership, and their star shooter Helen Housby was carrying an aggravated thigh injury and only just feeling her way back into the side.
They were also forced to battle hard for a one-goal victory over wooden spooners, the Queensland Firebirds.
But the Swifts were not listening to the doubters.
Instead, Swifts coach Briony Akle used her midweek media conference to fire her players up, insisting they were not cannon fodder for the Vixens and that they had earned a second chance to play for the title after they finished inside the top two.
This ploy worked and her players used the odds and adversity they had faced much throughout the season as their driving factor to make it through.
They sold out the NSW State Sports Centre on Sunday and left the game with a loud, standing ovation.
“This crowd says it all,” Akle said.
“They backed the team and I’m just so happy. I think I’m most proud of the fact that the team turned it around from last week and had a much better performance.”
Swifts goal shooter Sam Wallace was a standout up front, missing just two of the 42 attempts she put up at 95 per cent accuracy.
Her timing and wrist work when it came to collect each feed was solid, proving why she is one of the best shooters in the league.
Swifts defence on song against Vixens
The other bookends defending the Vixens goal circle, thieved the ball at every opportunity.
Sarah Klau, as keeper, guarded the post like her life depended on it, topping the stats with eight gains (three intercepts and five rebounds).
Goal defence Maddy Turner produced one of her best performances, constantly disrupting the opposition’s attacking line (two intercepts, four deflections, one rebound and one pickup).
The teamwork between Klau and Turner saw Diamonds and Vixens shooter Caitlin Thwaites sent to the bench within the first five minutes and she did not return.
They also made things difficult for Mwai Kumwenda and Tegan Philip, with both shooters’ accuracy taking a hit.
But player of the match went to Swifts captain Paige Hadley, who played the full 60 minutes in centre and ran her heart out on the court.
“I thought our intensity in the first quarter was on fire and our attack end really lifted from last week,” she said.
“Sammy Wallace really picked her timing, when to come out and when to stay in, and I thought her ball handling skills were awesome. She played a big role today.”
The Swifts now head north for the grand final against the Lightning, who are on track to secure a third consecutive title and have already beaten the Swifts in all three of their contests this season.
This challenge is not lost on Hadley, who said the team simply had nothing to lose.
“They’ve won every grand final of Super Netball history so we’ve got some hard work to do before next week,” Hadley said.
“For us it’s about playing smart with the ball like we did today.”