Super Netball, round 10: Melbourne Vixens 71 (Kumwenda 40, Philip 31) d Sunshine Coast Lightning 59 (Bassett 41, Wood 18) at Margaret Court Arena. Match MVP: Mwai Kumwenda
For all the disquiet surrounding the entry of privately-owned teams to the new Super Netball competition, the noise being made by the Melbourne Vixens continues to silence all those who had questioned the readiness of the proud establishment-owned club. After 10 rounds, the Vixens have skipped a game clear. They are premiership favourites. Go on. Say it loudly.
The Vixens' seventh consecutive win came 70-59 in the table-topping clash with the Sunshine Coast Lightning at Margaret Court Arena on Saturday night, their second score of 70 or above reversing the six-goal away result in two. Boasting identical 7-1-1 records, less that one percentage point had separated the two leading teams coming in; Melbourne departs with a two-point buffer that the Giants can close to one on Sunday.
Coach Simone McKinnis rated the performance the best of her team's season. "For that consistency across the game, at a high standard, I think that's as good as we've done," she said. "The quality of play I thought was really good from start to finish. [Against] a really good opponent. I'm really pleased, and just very proud of them."
In what the statisticians had billed as the highest-scoring team in the competition against the stingiest on defence, the Vixens started exceptionally well, a 20-goal first quarter both slick and sure. The 38-goal first half was their most prolific so far, Lightning coach Noeline Taurua having used nine of her 10 players eight minutes into the second term, but an eight-goal deficit soon after was never cut to less than four for the balance of the game.
Malawian sensation Mwai Kumwenda finishing with a perfect 40 from 40 shooting record as her partner Tegan Philip nailed 30 of 33 to continue a collaboration without peer in their first season together.
Liz Watson (26 goal assists) and Kate Moloney again excelled in the midcourt, and circle defenders Jo Weston and Emily Mannix kept Diamonds pair Caitlin Bassett and Steph Wood to a manageable total with the help of Chloe Watson and others exerting pressure from further up the court in a team defensive effort the coach considered much-improved.
While former Vixens Geva Mentor and Kelsey Browne were wearing their new colours, the off-season recruiting decisions endorsed by McKinnis are looking wiser by the week. Her faith in talented young circle duo of Jo Weston and Emily Mannix is being rewarded, while the shuffled midcourt has lost little for the departure of playmaker Madi Robinson.
The importance of Kumwenda and Philip has also been criticial to the Vixens' success, considering the attacking challenges of a 2016 season in which their scoring duties had been split between the inconsistent Karyn Bailey and rookies Alice Teague-Neeld and Emma Ryde after Philip was ruptured her ACL just weeks before the opening round.
In contrast, the Kumwenda-Philip partnership has thrived since setting the tone on opening night against the Magpies, marvellously accurate while sharing the load and a growing understanding. Philip has never played better, or been more confident on the shot; Kumwenda is the wildcard, her tricks, flair and elevation providing an air of athletic unpredictability that even the likes of Mentor struggle to stop.
"There's two shooters there, quality, that can shoot, that are tough, want the ball, want to put it up," said McKinnis, who said Kumwenda had brought fierce competitiveness to the team. "I love that, and you wouldn't know it, but she gets so nervous before a game and I'm just 'oh, MJ, you're just brilliant'. She's just naturally so competitive, she loves the team, we all love her and it's just been really special having her in the group."
Rarely more so than on Saturday, as finals loom, but are not discussed, amid smiles, big ones, and obvious satisfaction from McKinnis and co. "We've spoken in terms of consolidating our position; we spoke before the game, it's like 'hey, we've won six games in a row, why not seven?', because the opportunity's there and we quite enjoy being on top," she said.
"But in terms of the finals, it's not that we purposely don't think about it, we're just thinking about each game ... But they do have that belief and that has been there right from the word go."