On Wednesday evening the University of St Andrews Womens 1st Basketball team took on Nottingham Trent University (NTU), with promotion to the Premier League North for next season on the line.
After topping the Scottish 1A league this year with nine wins from ten, the St Andrews team advanced to the three team play-off bracket with Nottingham Trent and Leeds Beckett, with the team at the top of that round-robin format achieving promotion.
Both sides coming into this fixture had played Leeds Beckett and both had secured wins, with Saints winning 76-61 away and Nottingham Trent winning 74-66 in Nottingham. With that as the only gauge of performance between the teams, St Andrews could have been pegged as favourites for the game, especially given their home advantage.
Both sides traded threes to open the game and it was clear that the skill level of both sides would be high throughout the contest. Nottingham’s Centre was their key player and she came to the fore early on and helped Trent take a 9-3 lead. That lead put the Saints on the back foot but they were able to rally back into the game and scored two quick baskets before nailing another three to move back into the lead 10-9. Saints made it nine consecutive points in a row with another basket which prompted a timeout to be called by NTU. Once play was resumed the Nottingham centre drew a three point play to level the scores and then on their next possession they drew another foul, making one of the free throws to move back into the lead. Before the quarter came to a close Saints would score another 9 points to just one for Trent and when the klaxon went at the end of the 10 minute period, Saints had a key 21-14 lead.
At the start of the second quarter the Saints seemed to have found a defensive rhythm and had started putting plays together. They were countering moves made by Nottingham they struggled with in the first quarter and overall it was much tighter in the first minute or so. The Saints made a three to take a double-digit lead and they maintained that after both sides exchanged two point shots and then a timeout was called. Upon the return from the timeout Trent again seized the advantage and scores six consecutive points to narrow the Saints lead to four. A fastbreak score from Saints made it 28-22 but then Trent were to score a three and then another basket for the centre narrowed the lead to 1 point. Saints then were to nail a basket on the break to make it 30-27. Games of this magnitude often hinge on small margins and the quarter turned on its head after that shot. Nottingham Trent missed a wide open three and then on the break Saints scored a two, which was followed up by an interception three. It had gone from Trent being millimetres away from levelling the scores to being 35-27 behind. The teams exchanged baskets before the quarter came to an end and when the clock ran out it was 41-33 to the Saints.
One of the main issues the Saints girls faced during the game was that the Nottingham Trent side were so physical and they drew the Saints team into making fouls. The foul count at the end of the game was 22 committed by St Andrews compared to just 9 for Trent despite their more physical play style. The opening exchanges in this period were cagey and it took the Saints over three minutes to score their first basket and by the time they did the score was only 43-38 in their favour. Saints then scored another to make the lead 7 points but then Trent scored a reply basket on the next possession and then made both free throws on their next foul to make it 45-42. Saints then drew a foul of their own, a rarity during the game, and thought they had made both free throws but the second was to be retracted by the referees for overstepping the line. This made it just a two point game and that seemed to galvanise Trent. They scored a two and then a three to take the lead for the first time since the first quarter. That lead was not to last long as Saints scored twice in a matter of 30 seconds to move 50-47 ahead and whilst Trent made two free throws before the end of the quarter, Saints still led 50-49 with one quarter remaining.
The team talks and huddles ahead of the fourth quarter seemed incredibly intense as the enormity of the occasion dawned on the teams that were so close in the game. In contrast to the previous period where it took Saints an age to score, they had a basket in this quarter within ten seconds and went on a 6-1 run in the first 70 seconds to make the score 56-50. That lead was then eroded by three consecutive shooting fouls on three consecutive Trent plays, with them making 5 of the 6 free throws to leave the scores back at just one apart. The game was end-to-end compelling stuff as the clock drew on and a three point play from their centre again levelled the scored at 60-60 with just 4:48 to play. The teams traded baskets but a key moment came with it 66-62 to Saints and Trent in possession. Their centre scored again but the basket was ruled out for travelling and from the turnover, Saints scored a two to take the lead out to six and seemingly move to within touching distance of promotion. However, Trent showed their quality and stayed in the game and capitalised on costly Saints misses to make it 68-68 and force the game into overtime.
The overtime period was only 5 minutes long and therefore was incredibly intense with every shot seeming like it could be the decisive one. Trent had possession to start but missed their first shot and it looked like Saints had made the most of it with a huge three. However, the shooter had overstepped the line so it was only a two, making it 70-68. NTU levelled the scores and it seemed finely poised. Trent drew a foul but uncharacteristically missed both shots and Saints capitalised to make it 74-70. Trent pulled it back to 74-74 but Saints would then go on retake the lead 76-74. After an air ball shot from Trent, the Saints capitalised to make it 78-74 with just 16 seconds to go. Whilst Trent were able to get one basket in, there was simply not enough time and the game finished 78-76 to St Andrews, securing promotion and sparking wild celebrations in the Sports Centre. The players immediately ran to their coach and it was clear that there was a clear sense of pride among them for what they had achieved.
St Andrews will now compete in the Premier North competition next year which will be a huge step up but one that the team seem more than capable of adjusting to. There they will compete with Northumbria, the defending champions, Durham, Edinburgh (in games that will definitely be tense and exciting affairs), Newcastle and Loughborough. The girls promotion is a testament to their skill, dedication and togetherness as a team and is something we can all take immense pride in.