Cambridge missed out on the chance to go an entire season unbeatenImran Marashli

University of Cambridge 49

Nottingham Trent University 50

BUCS Midlands 1A League, University of Cambridge Sports Centre

They have regaled us with an incredible season of netball, but all good things must come to an end, even for Cambridge University Ladies’ Netball Club. Their run of nine consecutive wins in the Midlands 1A League was terminated in nail-biting fashion by Nottingham Trent University, with a goal in the last seconds of the game giving the visitors a 49–50 victory on Wednesday afternoon to prevent the Blues from topping the table with a clean sweep of victories.

Fresh off the back of an enthralling triumph over Oxford in their Varsity match, long ago confirmed as league champions, and having won 30–44 in Nottingham back in November, the Blues were no doubt the favourites on paper. But Nottingham Trent, a comfortable second in the table, were clearly the best of the rest and came out to prove their point.

From start to finish, the visitors’ effort was spearheaded by goal shooter and captain Kaya Wilson, whose height and power more than matched that of Lucy Gumbiti-Zimuto at goal keeper and whose offensive prowess would ultimately prove to be the difference between the two teams.

The first quarter was characterised by a tit-for-tat offensive display, as both sides’ attacking talent prevented either from pulling away. The ever-reliable combination of Maddy Eno and Frances Lee-Barber began to get the scoreboard ticking for Cambridge, but they were more than matched at the other end of the court by the irrepressible Wilson. She was ably supported by the agile Hannah Slaouti at goal attack, whose deft movement and drops of the shoulder opened up numerous goal circle action throughout the match and helped the visiting side end the first quarter 13–14 to the good.

The game’s ebb and flow remained its defining feature, with the two sides cancelling each other out and leaving little margin for error. Usually one or two instances of winning a contested rebound was enough to tip the scales in one team’s favour, but hard-working performances from both teams put paid to any brief advantage. The battle in the centre third of the court, pitting Sophie Maitland and Rebecca Haggie against Nottingham Trent’s Harriet Frost, Madeleine Hughes and Slaouti, was particularly engrossing, and there nothing could separate the two teams at half-time with the score at 24 goals apiece.

The tussle continued unabated into the third quarter, with neither team giving their opponents any breathing room. For a brief moment it seemed as though Cambridge would reprise their third-quarter masterclass against Oxford: intense pressure forced the visitors to lose the ball more; Eno continued to score relentlessly, perhaps rattling Adelaide Muskwe at goal defence who was cautioned after one penalty too many in the goal circle, and the lead stretched to an unprecedented four goals at 28–24.

But Nottingham Trent’s resilience was impeccable, with Stevie Turner’s persistence at wing defence doing well to stem the tide down the left side, while Slaouti netted some impressive shots of her own to complement Wilson and bring the match back to square one. Goal keeper Lucy Smith also grew in stature as the game progressed against Eno and Lee-Barber, making more interceptions and forcing more misses to help the visitors end the third quarter with a 37–38 lead.

It was clear that the match would go down to the wire. Conscious that any lapse in concentration would be fatal at this late stage, both teams’ intense pressure and frantic contesting of loose balls made for a fascinating dénouement. The visitors started to dictate the terms of play, opening up a three-goal lead only for the Blues to rally again, draw more penalties and eke out a 48–45 lead for themselves after five consecutive goals and with only three minutes left on the clock.

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Nottingham Trent, however, surged again, effectively exploiting Wilson’s height via high and direct passes, which she dispatched with unerring accuracy. Nevertheless, at 49–47 Eno had a chance to re-establish a three-goal cushion with two minutes and 30 seconds left on the clock, but squandered it: seconds later, Wilson scored again. With 90 seconds left, it was 49–49 and still all to play for.

In a thrilling climax, Cambridge frenetically manoeuvred the ball in and around the away end’s goal circle without finding the all-important opening, with Smith and Muskwe frantically doing all in their power to deny the Blues without conceding another penalty – and they succeeded.

It was now hearts-in-mouths time for all supporters as Nottingham Trent sallied away from their goal third. One final attacking thrust presented the ball to Wilson with only eight seconds remaining. She gathered the ball, set herself, and shot for goal one last time. With ice-cool composure, the game’s standout player scored to seal the game and pip Cambridge to the post right at the death and by the finest of margins.

Player of the match Wilson spoke with Varsity after the game: “We’ve had ups and downs throughout the season, but that time we played Cambridge we had a few injuries, so we lost. But it’s our last game for half of the team, so we just wanted to go out and win.”

Reflecting back on the last-gasp winner, she said: “I was trying to find my goal sttack but couldn’t see her, so I just thought I’d shoot! But thankfully it went in. I did think we were going to lose at the end,” she admitted, “because they had the ball for the majority of the minute, and then all of a sudden our defence turned it over, and we won.”

Cambridge captain Hayley Smith was visibly disappointed with the late loss: “Towards the end we failed to look after the ball as much as we should have, and so we didn’t quite manage to hang on. This is a gutting end to the season.

“Obviously we’ve had a fantastic season, and it was a great game. Both teams really stepped it up. I think both teams were very tidy and neither of us made unforced errors, and the only way to capitalise was to make a turnover ourselves and score a goal. This game was far tidier than the Oxford game, where Oxford were a bit more scatty and would give away the ball. Nottingham Trent were very tidy, and I think they were a really great team.”

But Smith was optimistic looking ahead: “We’ll put it [the defeat] to one side. This has been a really good practice game for the play-offs because this has been one of our toughest matches of the season. They have such a fantastic shooter, and I think it’s a really good experience for our defenders going into the play-offs.”

CULNC: Smith (c), Phillips, Eno, Lee-Barber, Haggie, Gumbiti-Zimuto, Plumtree, Maitland, Carpenter

NTU: Wilson (c), Slaouti, Frost, M. Hughes, Smith, H. Hughes, Muskwe, Turner, Wheeler

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