The Queensland Firebirds will play the Melbourne Vixens in Sunday’s trans-Tasman netball decider following a tense preliminary final win on Monday night.
Runners-up last season, the Firebirds gave themselves the chance to go one better in 2014 after outlasting the Waikato-Bay Of Plenty Magic 54-50 at a sold-out Brisbane Convention Centre.
Bookends Laura Geitz and Romelda Aiken were again influential stars for the home side which was forced to dig deep in the rugged encounter.
The nip-and-tuck game was in the balance with the Magic trailing by just two goals in the final term before the Firebirds’ all-court pressure told.
Queensland pounced on a poor pass between the Magic goalers, Ellen Halpenny and Jo Harten, and quickly blew the lead out to eight before resisting a late charge.
Aiken finished with a game-high 36 goals while she received fine assistance from partner-in-crime Amy Wild (18).
New Zealand captain Casey Kopua, battling an ankle problem, led her Magic strongly but they had little answer to the major aerial target Aiken provided.
The visitors started the stronger, taking advantage of the nervous Queenslanders but as the first quarter wore on, the Firebirds grew slicker in their avenue to goal.
While English international Harten was forced to resort to long bombs, Aiken typically netted all her 12 first-term goals from next to the post.
Queensland’s defensive pressure was highlighted by Clare McMeniman who was treated for a bloodied nose courtesy of a stray elbow.
A 14-13 Firebirds’ lead at the first break gradually grew to 29-26 at halftime, as neither side could break free, nor take advantage of turnovers.
Queensland captain Geitz was a constant thorn in the Magic’s side, with a host of intercepts, rebounds and close checking on the classy Harten.
The game looked like it was slipping away from the visitors midway through the third quarter when the Firebirds grabbed an eight-point buffer (38-30 lead) but the momentum swung almost instantly with the introduction of Jamie-Lee Price, the daughter of Queensland State of Origin prop Steve Price.
Sunday’s grand final is in Melbourne.
Two-goal losers to the Adelaide Thunderbirds in last year’s grand final, Firebirds coach Roselee Jencke felt the tight preliminary final was a perfect preparation for the decider at Hisense Arena.
The Vixens blew Queensland away in the first term of last week’s major semi-final, but Jencke was delighted how her team was far more brave under pressure against the Magic.
“We held our nerve and played a full 60 minutes so I’m really pleased,” Jencke said.
“We said finals are for the brave and we have got to step up and step into the unknown and be fearless.
“I thought that was a much more positive step towards that.”
Magic coach Julie Fitzgerald conceded the Firebirds deserved their victory but rued an inability to convert a host of turnovers through the second and third quarters.
“I was really pleased with our defensive effort but we tended to squander too much at our attack end and failed to take advantage of our opportunities,” Fitzgerald said.
“A lot of that is experience and we’re a team that has come an enormous way in a short amount of time, and we still have a lot to give.”