Despite having secured their place in the semi-finals in round 16, round 20 reeked of importance with final standings still all to play for, for Team Bath and Loughborough Lightning. The outcome of the match determined who would face who in the semi-finals, with Manchester Thunder and Leeds Rhinos also eagerly awaiting their fate at the start of the match.
Boasting the largest goal difference of all the teams, no thanks to the league’s top goal scorer Mary Cholhok, Lightning needed to win by just four points to end the regular season on top, whilst Team Bath aimed to maintain their season long lead.
The opening quarter saw Lightning run straight off the blocks increasing the speed and tempo of the match to impressive levels within a matter of minutes. Struggling to match their pace from the get go, Team Bath’s faults saw Lightning capitalise on error and push ahead by two early in the quarter. Strong and solid feeds through attack saw Lightning sink shots within three passes of the centre pass, looking confident throughout.
End of quarter 1: Loughborough Lightning 12 – 10 Team Bath
Increasing the speed once again, Lightning stepped out for the second quarter with a ferocity in their eyes to shut down the game. Fighting tooth and nail for every ball and chasing down Bath’s attack, Cobden’s reach teamed with young gun Odeogberin’s flight saw Lightning tip the incoming feed to Bath’s circle wreaking havoc on their ability to convert the points. Lightning widened their lead, much to the delight of the increasingly noisy Copper Box crowd, ending the first half ahead by eight.
Half-time: Loughborough Lightning 26 – 18 Team Bath
With just 24 minutes remaining and the fate of the top spot in their hands, Bath opted to change their line up whilst Lightning chose to push on once again. Readjusting to their new line-up, Bath took time to find their feet and after playing two games in as many days the fatigue began to set in. Lightning meanwhile maintained their outstanding pace opting to change Clark mid-way through the quarter for Liverseidge who once again upped the pace.
Offering support through the whole court, Joseph turned the ball into the hands of Lightning’s defence whilst Cobden’s international experience shone through as she continued to disrupt play and give Lightning key opportunities to convert.
End of quarter 3: Loughborough Lightning 39 – 26 Team Bath
Still far from comfortable, Lightning used the final quarter to widen their lead in order to rotate their bench and give the whole squad vital minutes ahead of finals weekend. Mid way through the quarter, Head Coach Sara Francis-Bayman switched up the defensive end with Harvey stepping into goal keeper and Lauren Nicholls to wing defence. Adding a fresh set of energy to a fiercely determined side, Team Bath began to falter once more and with the return of Clark and her famous long bombs to goal attack, Francis-Bayman’s side ran down the clock in style and on the final buzzer were crowned the 2021 league winners.
Full-time: Loughborough Lightning 54 – 35 Team Bath
With just two matches ahead of them and two highly anticipated battles in store, Francis-Bayman was keen to cite the importance of momentum for her side heading into the finals;
“It does feel good, it feels surreal. We said at the half way stage when we had two losses under our belt that the aim was to get two or less in the second half of the season and to finish like that. We always knew our goals were going to be important and we’re really happy to finish top.”
Francis-Bayman was pleased at her side’s comeback from round 19;
“The squad did such a good job tonight of gradually building a lead and continuously pushing on. I’m really proud of the bounce back from last week, they were terrible last week and to come out and play like that it takes a lot of guts.”
Francis-Bayman remarked on her ever changing starting seven;
“It was a tough decision tonight about Ella and Suzie in goal attack. We weren’t sure who to start and then we made the impact change of Suzie and we were happy with that. They’ve been fighting it out all year and hopefully that’s got the ability to take us far into this competition.”
Looking ahead to Lightning’s semi-final clash on Saturday against Leeds Rhinos;
“Leeds will come out firing, they’ve not played for a while which is tough for them but on the other side of it, they’re pretty fresh. We weren’t overly happy with having a Monday night game running straight into a semi-final on the Saturday so we’ve got to make sure that we use this quick turnaround well and that we’re ready for them.”
After a relentless performance on court, Commonwealth Games gold medallist Beth Cobden was rightfully named Computacenter Player of the Match;
“ I think the girls were awesome today, we were very disappointed last week and we just went away, picked ourselves up, worked on a few things and just really brought it. I think everyone was awesome today."
“We’re here to play, here to win and we were disappointed last week. It’s just about working on the small things, keeping building and we’ve had a few shots at the potential semi-finals with our past few games so now it’s time to go and do the real thing.”
Cobden also commented on the team’s top of the table finish;
“I think you’ve got to beat everyone so at the end of the day it doesn’t matter where you finish. There’s three awesome sides in those semis for us to come up against and whoever we face we’ve just got to go out there do our best and see what happens.”
Loughborough Lightning are back in action on Saturday 26th June at 1.30pm. Don’t miss a single second of their playoff journey, you can witness all the action LIVE on Sky Sports YouTube, Action and Mix.