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It was mission accomplished for the Mpumalanga Sunbirds after their victory over the Eastern Cape Aloes at the University of Pretoria’s Rembrandt Hall guaranteed they will finish the Brutal Fruit Netball Premier League in a higher position than last year.

Having finished in ninth spot in 2017, the Sunbirds were determined to earn their passage through to the seventh-place showdown with victory in the first of the playoff matches on Sunday. True to pre-match predictions, after these teams played to a 38-38 draw the last time they met, it was another tight affair.

They were level on 9-9 at the first break, but then it was the Aloes who edged ahead and held the lead for the majority of the match – albeit a slender one.

They were three goals up at half time and four ahead at the final break. But the fourth quarter was all about the Sunbirds as they clawed their way back into contention with more accurate passing and shooting, while their defence ensured there was a period of almost five minutes when the Aloes did not score at all. The experience and skill of the injured Aloes centre Athenkosi Mbengashe was sorely felt at that point as the Sunbirds surged ahead and eventually claim a 39-35 win.

“That last quarter was the pull-through for everybody,” said a relieved Sunbirds coach, Marlie Nel, afterwards. “We managed to capitalise on small mistakes the Aloes made – some missed catches, so I actually felt for them. But luckily my players could convert that and that helped a lot.

“My defence just kept on working and at the end it worked – getting the ball back to our shooters to get in. I know the Sunbirds are players that never stop fighting and the goal was to take this match. I think they went out to show everybody we aren’t a ninth-place team. We can finish higher,” added Nel.

Aloes coach Des Neville added: “It feels like déjà vu because that’s what happened in our first game against them. It just seems we can’t keep it together right until the end. We keep trying different strategies but we just don’t seem to be able to get that flow into the circle at this stage, which is frustrating because that’s how you score goals.”

As for the injury to Mbengashe, Neville added: “Athe was a big loss – her height for one thing. It’s nice to have a tall centre who can have a bigger, wider vision and get higher into the circle over good defences. She’s also very composed and very used to feeding our shooters, putting the ball into the right places.”

The Aloes, who finished in sixth spot last year will now play the Northern Cape Diamonds (who have yet to win a match) in a battle to avoid finishing in last place.

That’s after the Diamonds lost their first playoff match against the Limpopo Baobabs 71-40, with the Limpopo team notching up their highest total of the tournament so far.

The Baobabs, who finished seventh on the log, were always in control of the match, reaching half time 36-13 up and simply extending their lead from there.

Baobabs coach Jenne-lee Delport, who had taken the opportunity to give her bench players plenty of court time, said afterwards: “I was pleased with the overall performance. To me it was good and clean. Last night we made a lot of errors, bad passes, footwork and breaking the line. So last night, for the first time this tournament we had quite a hard chat and we spoke about the fact that you can’t be a champion on court if you’re not one off court. I think the players took that to heart and they came out on fire in the first quarter. We didn’t give them any glimpse of hope.”

The Baobabs will now play against the Sunbirds next weekend for seventh spot. The last time the teams met, the Baobabs won by just two goals so it should be an intriguing encounter.

“That’s going to be a tough one and very physical, especially in the goal circle. It would be great to win next weekend as we finished eighth last year, so we’d obviously like to improve on that,” said Delport.