The Waikato Wizards will meet the Platinum Homes Harbour Breeze in the Sal’s NBL 18IN18 Grand Final after a pulsating semi-final at Pulman Arena on Saturday.
The Wizards beat the Firebrand Otago Gold Rush 68-63 in a game that had eight lead changes and a further eight occasions where the scores were tied. It was a contest that kept the vocal crowd entertained from start to finish.
When Lisa Wallbutton put the Gold Rush 63-62 ahead with 1:25 to play it looked as if it was the South Island team was Grand Final bound. But, Kayla Manuirirangi found nothing but net with a difficult long two to put the Wizards 64-63 ahead with 1:07 to play.
The Gold Rush couldn’t score from the ensuing possessions, Manuirirangi and Matangiroa Flavell icing the game from the free-throw line.
The Wizards will be playing in their fifth grand final in the last eight years thanks to stellar performances from Manuirirangi who scored a game-high 18 points, Ariel Parai (14 points and five steals) and Esra McGoldrick (13 points, seven rebounds and five blocks).
Zoe Richards was exceptional for the Gold Rush with a double-double of 15 points and 14 rebounds. Hayley Gray was the other Otago player in double figures with 10 points.
Earlier, Sal’s NBL Youth Player of the Year Te Araroa Sopoaga was the first player to post points, the Gold Rush off to a 10-2 start, a tough finish from Bronwyn Kjestrup making it 14-2 at the mid-point of the first period.
Sopoaga added to Waikato’s woes with a corner three before Manuirirangi and Zarya Poulava made much-needed baskets for the Wizards who trailed 17-10 at the quarter break.
Richards and Manuirirangi exchanged baskets, the insertion of Parai helped the Wizards' cause. The veteran campaigner making five points before a classy drive by Manuirirangi gave the Wizards their first lead of the game (21-20).
McGoldrick made it a 13-0 Wizards run and 'Coach of the Year' award winner Gavin Briggs needed to talk things over with his team.
Olivia O’Neill made a brace of baskets as the Gold Rush countered with an 8-0 run of their own, the game beautifully poised at halftime with the scores tied at 28 all.
The Gold Rush once again made the better start to the half, two triples from Hayley Gray and one from Savanna Handevidt helping them to a 41-32 lead and a concerned Wizards Head Coach Leanne Walker required a timeout.
Parai had a growing influence on the game as the scores tightened once again, 45-42 in favour of the Gold Rush. At the other end of the experience scale, Alana Paewai was also making her mark, the St Peter’s School point guard making a delightful floater.
It was difficult to separate the teams at the break – the Gold Rush ahead by the narrowest of margins (49-48). A turn-around jump shot from McGoldrick made it a one-point game (53-52) but a pair of O'Neill scores stretched it back to five.
Manuirirangi made a delightful pass for a McGoldrick score. All-Star Five forwards Makayla Daysh and Richards were having a mighty battle and when Daysh scored inside it was a one-point game (59-58) for what seemed like the hundreth time with four minutes to play.
Parai produced a mid-range jumper and the Wizards were ahead 62-61 with two minutes to play, Wallbutton responded with a baby hook but the closing 90 seconds belonged to the Wizards.
Wizards 68 – Manuirirangi 18p, Parai 14p, McGoldrick 13p, Paewai 6p
Gold Rush 63 – Richards 15p/14r, Gray 10p, O’Neill 8p, Kjestrup 8p
Remainder of Sal’s NBL Finals Weekend schedule
Sunday December 6
2:30pm D-League Grand Final – Taranaki Thunder v Rotorua Lady Geysers
5:00pm 18IN18 Grand Final – Platinum Homes Harbour Breeze v Waikato Wizards