Short-handed Southern Steel round out perfect regular season against Pulse
Not quite back to full strength after last week's van crash, the Southern Steel have nonetheless completed a season-long unbeaten run with a comfortable 64-51 win over Central Pulse.
Backing up from Sunday's gutsy 57-46 win over Mainland Tactix, the Steel were boosted by the return on two key players in Jamaican shooter Jhaniele Fowler-Reid and Silver Ferns midcourter Shannon Francois.
The pair were two of the four Steel players taken to hospital after their team van collided with a car at a Christchurch intersection six days ago.
Captain and wing defence Wendy Frew, and goal attack Te Paea Selby-Rickit are still sidelined, but expected to make next week's final in Invercargill.
The Pulse, second on the ladder, have already secured hosting rights for the second and third-placed play-off to decide the southerners' opposition.
But they desperately needed a strong showing in Invercargill on Monday after the Steel thumped them 80-44 just three weeks ago.
There were some encouraging signs - defenders Phoenix Karaka and Katrina Grant worked hard to keep the pressure on the 1.98m Fowler-Reid, and the Pulse still managed to secure enough turnover ball early on.
But they struggled on transition and too often gifted possession straight back to the Steel.
A prime example came seven minutes into the second quarter. Down 13-17 after 15 minutes, the Pulse looked about to close the gap to two midway through the second stanza.
Silver Ferns goal keep Jane Watson had other ideas, reading goal attack Tiana Metuarau's long-range pass into shooter Cathrine Tuivaiti and pouncing on the intercept to launch a 7-0 scoring streak.
The Steel built on that momentum into halftime, taking a 34-25 lead into the main break, then controlled the third quarter for a 49-40 lead with 15 minutes remaining.
Both coaches made full use of their benches as the match closed out, the Pulse with more than half an eye on their preliminary final in Wellington on Sunday.
Their opposition will be decided in the last round-robin match of the season, with the Magic able to sneak into third ahead of the Mystics if they can beat the Northern Stars by 18 goals or more in Tauranga on Wednesday.