Battling Northern Ireland impressively matched Barbados in yesterday’s International Festival final at Antrim Forum but superior shooting stats secured the trophy for the Caribbean crew.
Barbados were crowned champions by virtue of converting 81 percent of their chances compared to 61 percent by their hosts on an afternoon when only nine goals separated the sides at the end.
Inspired by the heroic Caroline O’Hanlon, who bravely returned after missing Saturday’s dress rehearsal for personal reasons, the girls in green put up a magnificent fight before losing 47-38.
Also significant was the return of O’Hanlon’s fellow doctor Oonagh McCullough, whose hamstring hadn’t been risked on Saturday but threw everything into the final.
Although she and main shooter Lisa Somerville may be faulted for not converting enough chances, they had to fight ferociously for opportunities against powerful opponents.
Willis led by tireless example and the experienced attacking trio of O’Hanlon, the acting captain and McCullough were effective in creating chances.
The young defensive duo of Fionnuala Toner and Niamh Cooper stood up under pressure and behind them third choice goalkeeper Nordia Masters battled brilliantly against giant shooters.
Especially considering that established stars Gibney and Lennon were missing at either end of the court, this was an extremely encouraging effort against one of the world’s top 10 teams as the countdown to next summer’s Commonwealth Games begins.
Beaten by double scores the day before, this time Kate Carpenter’s team held their own in a cracking contest, an inspired start putting them 7-4 up before Barbados ominously reeled off the next seven goals.
The first break came with the favourites five up but Northern Ireland raised their game again and edged the second quarter to reach half-time only 18-22 down.
Barbados threatened to pull away in the third quarter but some brilliant attacking play helped the underdogs stay in touch and keep the game alive going into the final quarter for which Carpenter replaced Toner and Cooper with Frances Campbell and Michelle Drayne.
It looked all over for the hosts when their opponents pulled 15 clear with just over 12 minutes remaining but O’Hanlon and McCullough combined for the latter to net twice inside 60 seconds.
Fellow shooter Somerville then nailed a brace of her own in the next minute and, with the crowd coming to life, rejuvenated Northern Ireland had the scent of Barbados blood.
McCullough’s manic commitment typified her side’s spirit but, although taking the final quarter 12-10, Northern Ireland could never get closer than an eight goal-gap as victory and the trophy remained tantalisingly out of reach.
NORTHERN IRELAND: N Masters, F Toner, N Cooper, C O’Hanlon, H Willis (capt), O McCullough, L Somerville. Subs: F Campbell for Toner, M Drayne for Cooper.