Necole Sterling played her last game for Portlaoise Panthers at the weekend.
With three games on the final weekend of the regular Super League season last weekend, Portlaoise Panthers, Waterford Wildcats and Killester were each competing for the much sought after fourth place, and with it the final playoff spot.
All three teams came into the weekend level on points, but Panthers eyes were focused on Saturday's game with DCU Mercy, as they hoped that the struggling NUIG Mystics would cause an upset over Killester in Galway, paving the way for them to swoop into the playoffs.
Unfortunately, it was not to be, as the Dublin side were comprehensive winners and with that win, all hopes of the Panthers capturing their first play off spot were dashed.
Despite the disappointment, all roads led to Dublin on Sunday with fifth place up for grabs as the girls took on DCU Mercy, who had previously secured third place in the league and were already making preparations for their play-off game against Liffey Celtics.
Meanwhile in Cork, Waterford Wildcats were taking on Brunell. A loss in DCU and a win for Wildcats would mean that the Panthers would be pushed back in to 6th place, resulting in a disappointing weekend overall, and end to the season.
The Panthers started the better of the two teams in the DCU Sports Complex as they exposed the mismatch inside as the small Fionuala Toner picked up Claire Melia inside. Necole Sterling found Melia with some excellent over-the-top passes and she duly converted those opportunities.
DCU slowly grew into the game as their two Americans showed their class as Perez penetrated from the outside, and Fairbanks finished well under the boards despite some excellent pressure from the Portlaoise defence.
There wasn't much separating the two teams but momentum swung in Mercy's favour in the closing minutes of the quarter as Woods and Perez got hot from outside the arc, which allowed them to establish an eight point lead going into the second quarter.
This quarter was, arguably, one of the best performances from the Panthers girls all season, as they not only took the lead but outscored their opponents by ten points. With Sterling and Melia linking well inside on offence, much of the Mercy attention was focused on stopping that threat especially with the height deficit.
With the guards being forced to help inside, Melia cleverly noticed the help defence and found and open Maeve Phelan, on two separate occasions, in the corner and she executed excellently from the three point line. Catherine O'Sullivan also got her name on the scoresheet as she was also accurate from outside the arc.
It was on the defensive end however, where Portlaoise exerted their dominance as Mercy struggled to score from their set offense, instead depending on lay-ups off the fast break, which Portlaoise managed to control in this quarter also.
The grit and determination showed by the Panthers girls in this quarter had to be applauded as they controlled their own boards, through Nihil and Sterling, and contested every offensive boards.
Tomlinson injected some much needed pace and energy into the game for the visitors after being introduced off the bench. The two point lead the team established in this quarter would not be relinquished until the end of the third quarter.
The Panthers continued to exert their dominance over the Mercy team in the opening minutes of the third quarter as they pushed the lead out to six points. Sterling, in her last game for the Portlaoise Panthers, took a firm hold of the game on the offensive end and scored ten of her final 25 point tally in this quarter, and put in some Trojan work on the defensive end on the dangerous Sarah Fairbanks.
Phelan, Melia and O'Sullivan each exposed some gaps on the defensive end from the perimeter as they penetrated and finished well under the board. However, in the final five minutes of the quarter, momentum shifted and following some dubious refereeing calls at the expense of the Panthers, they found themselves undeservingly one point down following a dagger three in the closing moments and went into the last with all to play for.
At the beginning of the final quarter, Mercy established their biggest lead of the game as they scored three unanswered baskets, two of which were off Portlaoise turnovers. A quick timeout from coach Peter O'Sullivan refocused the team and they emerged with renewed effort.
Panthers took the ball at the Mercy side which resulted in them getting into foul trouble and on team fouls with four minutes left to play. At this point in the game Fairbanks picked up a personal foul, followed by a technical foul and so she was forced to take her place on the bench with five fouls.
This was a massive boost for the Portlaoise side as they capitalised from the free throw line through the Melia sisters and bridged the gap to one point coming down the stretch. With one American out of the game, Perez stepped up and took control for the Mercy side as she finished well under the basket to push the lead to three points.
An unfortunate turnover from the Panthers team with seconds on the clock forced a quick foul to send Mercy to the line again and the game slowly moved out of the Panthers grasp.
A favourable result from Cork, where Brunell managed to upset the Wildcats, means that Portlaoise were rewarded for their heartened effort in DCU and officially sealed fifth place in the Super League which is a phenomenal achievement in their second year at this level, and considering they narrowly survived relegation last year.
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