Match Report: Rockets Women 57-66 Manchester Mystics

City of Birmingham Rockets women came up just short in their season opener against Manchester Mystics at Nechells Wellbeing Centre in front of an enthusiastic home crowd on Saturday afternoon.

After leading by as many as 13 in the second quarter, Rockets unfortunately faded in the second half and lost out to a youthful, yet physical Manchester outfit.

After a hugely successful season in 2022/23, Rockets gained promotion to the highest level of National League competition in their 20th year as a club – NBL Division 1. Manchester were always going to be a difficult opponent, as a team with a proud and successful history.

Birmingham did defeat Manchester’s second team during last season’s National Cup campaign, but this was against their first team, who posed a different challenge with experience of playing in the top division.

During the off-season, Coach Ryan Emery has strengthened the squad, adding Grace Brownell and Nuri Seyedagha-Calderon (returning for a second spell at Rockets), both from Worcester Wolves, who have experience playing at this level.

They complement the returning core of the team including captain Enkeleda Pashaj (2022/23 Defensive Player of the Year), Michelle Turner (WNBL Division Two Pool Two 2022/23 MVP), and regular starters Catarina Seixas and Sarah Mullgrave.

Valuable squad players Ellie Pierpoint, Milly Harrison and Heather Maxwell also return, as well as promising youngsters Danie Wallis and Precilla Ocrah, who impressed at the end of last season, when they first broke into the senior squad.

After going three points down early on, new recruit Brownell secured Rockets first basket of the game before Harrison gave Rockets their first lead, laying in on the fast break, assisted by Seyedagha-Calderon.

Despite some early foul trouble, Rockets maintained this lead, forcing a relatively early Mystics timeout after Harrison extended Rockets’ lead from the foul line. This made little difference to the momentum, as a Mulgrave steal and drive for two and a Seixas 3-pointer on the back of excellent defending to force a turnover were among the highlights as Rockets slowly built a lead.

An Ocrah jump shot assisted by Turner and a Seyedagha-Calderon 3-pointer helped Rockets launch out to a 22-14 lead by the end of the first, although Mystics did score the final four points of the quarter to stem the flow a little.

The second quarter began in chaotic fashion with both teams playing fast-paced basketball but making mistakes. Amidst the errors, Birmingham continued to extend their lead.

Brownell drained a 3-pointer and Harrison put back a 2-pointer from an offensive rebound to leave Rockets 13 ahead at 31-18.

Several timeouts disrupted the flow of the game as half time approached. Turner hit a 3-pointer in between the delays, but Mystics began to chip away at the lead as the half ended 39-33, with Rockets up by 6.

Manchester came out fired up after the half time break and increased their intensity and physicality. The game became scrappy with both teams missing rushed shots and turning the ball over, with some tough refereeing calls thrown in too. However, a trade-mark Turner 3-pointer and Seyedagha-Calderon jump shot for 2 helped maintain the lead 46-38 as Mystics called another timeout.

This proved to be the big momentum swing of the game. Mystics closed out the quarter with an 11-2 run for their first lead since the very start of the contest, 49-48.

The fourth of Turner’s huge 3-pointers tied things up early in the final quarter at 51 apiece, but Rockets faded from that stage against an energised Mystics side, who built an 11-point lead of their own with just 2.30 remaining.

Rockets were forced to rely on outside shots due to intense pressure around the basket and the fact that time was against them. Despite making a couple of further 3-pointers, the game was slightly out of reach and the home side fell to a 57-66 loss.

Despite the defeat, there were a number of positives to take from the game. Rockets proved that they can compete at this level. There were stand-out performances from Harrison with 9 points and 10 rebounds and both Turner and Seixas finished with 12 points and 3 steals each.

The team now travel to Brent next Sunday for the first away game of the season, looking to bounce back and register a first league win.

Report by Jess Ellicott