SOUTHEND Swifts U14 and U16 basketball teams represented the club in the finals of the national competition over the weekend, returning with one trophy and a great deal of pride.
UNDER 14 GIRLS NATIONAL SEMI FINAL
SOUTHEND SWIFTS 65, HOUNSLOW HAWKS 59 (AFTER OVERTIME)
After a season of striving for league position, it was Final Fours time. The best four teams in the country, boys and girls at under 14, 16 and 18 level, descend on the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield to battle for the title of national champions. For Southend Swifts, there were two opportunities for silverware; the under 14 and under 16 girls.
The first day saw the under 14 girls in action against Hounslow Hawks, a team making their debuts at this level but boasting two excellent players in Bethany Mann and Katherine Boachie-Yiadon. For Southend, it was the hope that the form that had kept them unbeaten throughout the season, would continue in their final two games.
It was Hounslow who made the better start as Boachie-Yiadon dominated the rebounding. She had her team’s first nine points as Swifts started particularly nervously. Good foul shooting from Charlotte Ellmore kept the Essex side in contention but with Mann finding her range, particularly from distance, it was Hawks who led 23-14 at the end of the first quarter, with the Londoners’ dynamic duo having all of their points.
Southend found some of their normal fluency in the second period as Amelia Wilson, Grace Crook and Chelsea Locke found the basket. But Hounslow recovered with Mann again prevalent. Swifts had certainly picked a bad day to be less than 100% and at half time, they trailed 37-27.
The third quarter looked better as Georgia Powell, Katie Bennett and Rhian Simpson finally getting clear to score. But Hounslow continued to respond, at times with some outrageous shooting, and going into the final quarter they led 49-41.
Southend finally got into gear as they opponents visibly tired. Four points from Powell and six from Ellmore reduced the deficit to four but a basket from Mann restored the margin to six. The Hounslow captain was called for her 5th foul in the final minute and Swifts could smell blood. Powell scored with 44 seconds to play; another steal and this time Ellmore found the basket and there were two points in it. Another Hawks’ turnover with six seconds remaining, the ball was passed forward and from 10 feet out, 13 year old Bennett made the shot that tied the game up and sent it into overtime, with the big crowd in raptures.
Unsurprisingly both teams were desperately nervous, with no scores in the first two of the five minute period. But Ellmore, Locke and Simpson would register the only baskets as their team recorded a remarkable 65-59 victory seemingly against all odds. Ellmore with 18 points, Powell 13 and Bennett 12 leading the scoring.
UNDER 14 GIRLS NATIONAL FINAL
SOUTHEND SWIFTS 62 CITY OF SHEFFIELD HATTERS 74
So onto the national final, the culmination of seven months very hard work. Southend’s opponents would be City of Sheffield Hatters, the most famous club in Britain and boasting the finest record in all women’s sport. In Shauna Harrison, they had a player setting amazing feats with her scoring prowess.
Rhian Simpson opened the scoring before Harrison had the next four. Simpson scored again and when Georgia Powell and Charlotte Ellmore connected from close range, it was 8-6 Swifts. But a remarkable sequence saw Harrison score 12 of her teams next 14 points, with Southend replying with just four, as Hatters led 20-12. A three-point play from Chelsea Locke and a pair of Ellmore foul shots kept Swifts in the game and at the end of the first quarter, Sheffield led 24-18, with Harrison scoring a remarkable 20 points.
Southend’s plan was to put young Katie Bennett to mark Harrison. The teams traded baskets for three minutes before Swifts had their best spell. Simpson, Ellmore Bennett and the effervescent Shannon Brook all scored in a 9-2 run and the Essex team led 33-32. Hatters had four of the last six points and they led 36-35 at half time.
Charlotte Redhead had the first points of the third period before Sheffield replied with six straight to lead by four. Simpson scored again but neither team could get clear. The margin reduced back to two before Hatters made a shot on the buzzer to lead 50-46 going into the final quarter.
But now Sheffield would make the decisive break as they scored 12 straight in the first five minutes. Swifts tried to battle back, with 12 year old Redhead making two three-pointers and with two minutes top play it was 59-68. But Swifts could get no closer as Hatters finished out deserved winners by 74 points to 62.
Harrison’s 38 points, with just six in each of the final three periods, had been the crucial element for her team. For Swifts, Ellmore and Simpson with 13 and Redhead 12 had led the scoring but it was the defensive work of Bennett that almost led to a famous victory.
There were tears or tantrums at the end. Just huge pride in what the team had achieved with the only defeat of the season in the final game.
UNDER 16 GIRLS NATIONAL SEMI FINAL
SOUTHEND SWIFTS 76 SEVENOAKS SUNS 74
AFTER the raw excitement of the under 14 competition the previous day, it was the turn of Southend Swifts under 16s to fight for the title of national champions. Their opponents were Sevenoaks Suns, one of the strongest girls clubs in the country, who had won the under 18 event the previous day.
After trading baskets, Sevenoaks’ Gabby Nikitinaite took over proceedings as she had her team’s next eight points. Southend managed just one basket in reply, before Suns had a 13-2 run to lead 21-6 after eight minutes, leading to a 26-7 first quarter advantage.
When Nikitinaite picked up her third foul and had to return to the bench, Swifts sensed the slimmest opportunity. Claire Gold and Megan Jones scored from the foul line and 10 points from Zoe Willis were part of a 13-2 spell that reduced the deficit to eight. Sevenoaks hit back with a three-pointer but the energy of Charlotte Bennett was keeping Southend in contention. When she collected her 4th foul, she had to return to the bench before Gold and Willis scored again to make it 38-29 at half time – a 10 point turnaround in the quarter.
But once again Suns took control. They had the first 12 points to lead 50-29 and although Swifts captain Jones finally found her way to the basket , the margin increased to 22 at 55-33 after five minutes. Jones and Willis scored again and six points from Amber Evans made it 63-45 going into the final minute. Suns had the next three to lead by 21 before Evans had a three-pointer to make it 66-48 going into the final 10 minutes and the game out of any possible reach for Swifts.
But seemingly a magic potion was applied during the team talk. Gold from close range was followed by six straight for Willis and another Jones lay-up made it 66-58. After 6 minutes it was 70-60 but Gold and Willis scored again and it was 70-64 with three minutes to play and the watching spectators unbelieving of what they were seeing. Jones was very harshly called for her 5th foul but this seemed to strengthen her team’s resolve. Nikitinaite replied but in the next two minutes, Swifts would score eight unanswered points and it was 72 all. Sevenoaks regained the lead from a steal before Daisy Herd made the biggest play of her basketball career to tie the game up again. Sevenoaks turned the ball over and Swifts again got the ball into Willis’ hot hand. She scored again to give her team their only lead since the first play of the game. Sevenoaks had the opportunity to win or tie the game but the final shot dropped short and the most famous and unbelievable result in Southend’s club history had been secured. Willis with a club career high 36 points had led the way with Gold and Jones on 10 each.
UNDER 16 GIRLS NATIONAL FINAL
SOUTHEND SWIFTS 82 CITY OF SHEFFIELD HATTERS 72
With their spectators still shaking after the remarkable semi final, Southend Swifts under 16s had to be ready for City of Sheffield Hatters. The home town Hatters had a much easier route to the final and would doubtless be in a more relaxed mental state for the final game.
Hatters had the first points but Southend replied through Charlotte Bennett and Daisy Herd. Emma Pallett was controlling proceedings against Sheffield’s aggressive defence and her three point play was the start of a 9-0 run that took her team 12-4 ahead. Bennett was particularly active at both ends of the court and her score took her team 17-8 ahead. Hatters hit back with Eleanor Goodwin scoring eight straight points. The loss of Swifts captain Megan Jones to injury after falling heavily, unsettled her team and an 8-1 run tied the game at 18 at the end of the first quarter.
Sheffield maintained the initiative, leading 24-21, but with Zoe Willis continuing her form from the semi final, Southend re-took the lead. Hatters tied the game up but three-pointers from Pallett and Amber Evans and four points from Bennett took Swifts 36-28 ahead. The margin was maintained and an outrageous three-point play from the diminutive Pallett made the lead double digit for the first time at 41-31. Another Bennett score from close range made it 43-35 at half time.
Despite the reappearance of Jones, Hatters showed why they are always the toughest club to beat. From 46-39 down they had 10 unanswered points to lead 49-46 as Southend went scoreless for four minutes. But five points from Willis and a pair of Clare Gold foul shots made it 53-49. Again, Hatters hit back with six straight before Evans scored a three-pointer to give her team a 56-55 lead going into the final stanza and the crowd almost in a frenzy.
Jones finally found her range behind the three-point line before what was the crucial break. Willis, Jones, Gold and two more from Willis, all coming from outstanding defensive efforts, made it 69-57. Hatters had the next four but a foul shot and left hand score from Jones took it back to 11. Sheffield reduced the margin to seven but another Jones three-pointer restored the double digit margin. With Bennett and Herd coming back in despite foul trouble, Swifts tightened their grip and two steals from Herd settled the game despite a consolation three-pointer at the end.
A remarkable day’s play for Southend to repeat the victory they had as under 14s two years previously. Much more impressive was the major contribution by no less than seven players. Willis with 16 points (64% shooting), Jones 13 points, 9 rebounds and 4 blocked shots, Bennett 13 points and 9 rebounds, Pallett 11 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds, Gold 10 points, 13 rebounds and 3 steals, Herd 10 points and 4 steals and Evans 9 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks. Jones was selected as the Most Valuable Player of the Final but this was a remarkable team effort and why this team has been so successful.
Swifts chairman Paul May concluded “a magnificent weekend for the club. The two semi final victories were just beyond belief and our teams are now called the cardiac pack. We’re all a bit disappointed for our under 14s, who used so much emotion in the semi final. The under 16s showed remarkable poise in front of a large and very noisy crowd to produce a superb performance in winning the title.”