Five days ago, Singapore’s netballers let slip a six point lead in the fourth quarter against Malaysia to draw 35-35.
Up by five points at the start of the fourth quarter in the final against the same opponents on Sunday afternoon, the visitors outscored the hosts in the first few minutes of the frame, leaving some to wonder if history would repeat itself.
But this time, the Singapore girls had learnt their lesson. While they narrowly lost the final period 12-10, it was enough to see them through to final whistle - and dethrone the defending champions for a historic first gold in the sport at the 28th SEA Games.
“I thought, ‘oh my goodness, surely not again?’” said coach Ruth Aitken. The final 15 minutes was a nail-biting affair for her. “But I thought there was a real calmness within the group and a belief in each other, and they did the work and finished off well.
“It was an amazing game, it was a battle from both sides mentally and physically and I think for us to come out on top was just wonderful.”
The New Zealander kept faith with the same starting seven throughout the game for “consistency” and was rewarded with lion-hearted displays from every single one.
The game-plan of pressing Malaysia hard and cutting their service to 1.85m goal shooter Norashikin Kamalzaman worked, with even the attackers making crucial interceptions in a true team effort.
Captain Micky Lin hailed her team’s ability to manage the expectations of the home crowd, which packed out the OCBC Arena.
“We understood the game plan and we knew what we were going to do but at the same time [also] took a deep breath and tried to relax ourselves in the changing room,” she revealed.
“It’s a delicate balance, I would say and I think the girls managed really well.”
Gold at last for Premila
For veteran defender Premila Hirubalan, the only member from the side that lost to Malaysia in the final in 2001, the only other time the sport had featured in the Games, it was a victory “14 years in the making”.
“I finally got the gold medal and I am very happy,” she laughed. “I like to laugh at them (my team-mates) because they were in kindergarten at that time!”
The 32-year-old also revealed that Aitken had told them to settle down and keep things simple during a timeout in the final quarter after Malaysia had pulled level at 39-all.
“Ruth said we didn’t need to be fancy and to do things that we haven’t done before,” she said. “We are good at attacking and defending, we are sharp and we play for each other... and I think we did.”
The team were also indebted to shooting duo Chen Huifen and Charmaine Soh, who improved markedly from their previous outing against Malaysia.
Soh, who sunk 38 attempts for a 79 per cent shooting accuracy (up from 23 out of 32), revealed that she had plugged in to the sounds of noisy crowds and listen to heavy metal music as she did her shooting practice before the final.
“The previous time, I had noticed that when i was shooting, it was really noisy and [that was the time] I really had to focus [as it was] during the most crucial period [of the game],” she explained.
“She actually went to find a solution to help her cope with the crowd, which was fantastic, so well done Char!” said Chen.
Soh further emphasised the trust that the team had in each other. “What I told them was just to have faith in each other - like we will do it for them, as in we will put in the goals and they had to defend it and we will do it as a team.”
Strong home crowd - and special guests
The Singapore players and staff also paid tribute to the home support, who roared them on throughout. “The crowd was magnificent, it was just wonderful,” a grateful Aitken asserted.
“We’ve been blessed all week with the crowd support and today they did help to really get us over the line, so ‘thank you’ to the eighth player!”
Two special guests were in attendance - President Tony Tan and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong were in the stands to cheer on the home team.
“Congratulations to our netball team for achieving this historic win for Singapore,” said Tan to the media after the victory ceremony. “The team played well, they kept their nerves, it was very close of course… and I am happy that we managed to win at the end.”
Singapore starters vs Malaysia (11-10, 14-10, 11-11, 10-12)Q1 to Q4: Micky Lin (capt.)(GK), Premila Hirubalan (GD), Ang Shiqi (WD), Nurul Baizura (C), Kimberly Lim (WA), Chen Huifen (GA), Charmaine Soh (GS).