The search for a maiden NBL1 South win took a heartbreaking turn for the OneFortyOne Mount Gambier Pioneers women during a big weekend of basketball.
Taking part in the special Play4BCNA round supporting Mother’s Day, the Pioneers could not have been much closer to tasting victory in Saturday’s first leg of the doubleheader against Dandenong Rangers.
The clash was Mount Gambier’s best chance to score a victory on the weekend and the side rose to the occasion in the first half.
After the Rangers’ Emilee Harmon hit the scoreboard first, Sherrie Calleia, Hannah Young and Madeline Wormald found some shooting form to push the Pioneers in front.
By the closing stages of the first term, the visitors had increased their advantage to double figures after some solid passing and defence.
Halfway through the second term Mount Gambier’s lead was up to 14 points as captain Jasmin Howe started to get into the game.
However, a slow finish to the quarter plus a late three-pointer from Elly Morgan brought Dandenong well within touching distance at the main break.
Despite a positive start from the Pioneers when players returned to the floor, the home side seized on an opportunity when fouls started to impact the leaders.
In the space of just three minutes, the Rangers went from trailing by seven points to leading the way as Dallas Loughbridge became a factor under the net.
A successful free throw by Howe levelled the scores and suddenly it was game on with just one quarter to go.
A thrilling climax was almost inevitable as the lead changed hands at almost every play, while Howe continued to harass the Dandenong defence.
But with the final buzzer approaching, Mount Gambier started to miss chances to build its slender lead and the Rangers crept ahead by one point in the penultimate minute.
A foul on Calleia appeared to be incredibly costly as Elly Morgan sunk two free throws under pressure to push Dandenong to the tricky three-point lead with less than 30 seconds on the clock.
When the Pioneers regained possession for one final play they assessed their options and Wormald came to the party.
She held her nerve to score a clutch three-pointer to level the scores with just four seconds left to keep the visitors alive.
The Rangers had one last chance through a long-range shot from Tenaya Sooalo, but that was unsuccessful as the teams went into overtime.
OneFortyOne Mount Gambier Pioneers coach Matt Sutton said he felt his side got lucky to fight on after a difficult second half.
“Dandenong took control in the second half as foul trouble hurt us, but some crucial plays of Jasmin Howe kept us in the game,” he said.
“I think the way the play unfolded meant we were going to require a prayer at the end of it which we got.
“Madeline is a big-time shooter and is not afraid of the moment and I think there was a calmness amongst our group once she had the ball because you could tell she was going to shoot it and she did.” Tensions were sky high during the five minutes of overtime, but Howe stepped up again with a pair of three- point jump shots giving the Pioneers a lead.
However, Sooalo lifted the Rangers over the line in the final minute and Mount Gambier was forced to deal with another heart-breaking defeat.
Without a couple of leaders, Sutton said it was always going to be hard to triumph in overtime.
“It was a tough ask after two of our starters in Sherrie and Shakera were fouled out,” he said.
“The girls got off to a pretty good start in overtime, but the charge call against Hannah was a crucial when you are down by two points with around 20 seconds to go.
“That was tough to come back from and we were bitterly disappointed we could not take out the game, but still proud of the effort after giving them- selves a chance.” The Pioneers returned to the courts again on the following afternoon to face top team Melbourne Tigers.
It proved to be a tough afternoon for Mount Gambier as the home team dominated the final three quarters to record a comprehensive 52-point win.
However, it was not all smooth sailing for the Victorians as the Pioneers went toe to toe in the opening stages.
Calleia got the ball rolling with a two pointer to give the visitors an unexpected early lead before the Tigers hit back.
Young and Howe got involved before Calleia finished the term just how she started, but this time swishing a three to pull Melbourne’s deficit down to just one point.
However, the fight did not last for much longer as the likes of Opal Zitina Aokuso and WNBL player Monique Conti showed their stuff.
Sutton said there were still some positives to take away from the game as his side prepares for a home game against third-placed Knox.
“They were probably more mentally switched on then I anticipated and we were within reach, but you could see a shift in our physicality and focus as half time approached,” he said.
“It was a good opportunity to play Johanna Jones and Emily Dawe who stepped up with some plays and it was good to see Keryl Ousey get her mojo back on the court.
“There are some sore bodies, but they will reload and it does not get any easier against a talented team like Knox with some Opals and WNBL talent, but we will be up for the challenge.”