O’Hanlon in seventh heaven
Tuesday, 5 August 2014
CAROLINE O'Hanlon has rounded off a dream month of sporting glory by inspiring Northern Ireland's netballers to a magnificent seventh place at their first Commonwealth Games.
The Bessbrook sportswoman, who lifted the Ulster Senior Championship trophy in a packed Clones a few weeks ago as Armagh gaelic captain, showed her world-class credentials on the prestigious stage of Glasgow 2014 with a series of highly accomplished performances.
Ranked 11th in the competition, Northern Ireland proudly punched above their weight and, although all the leading netballing nations are Commonwealth countries, ultimately bettered their excellent eighth place at the 2011 World Cup in Singapore.
They finished ahead of their celtic cousins Scotland and Wales who both have much more funding and a deeper player pool but ultimately cracked when the heat came on in the SECC arena.
The two wins were revenge for O'Hanlon's side who had missed out on qualifying for next year's World Cup in Australia courtesy of narrow defeats by both teams two months ago at the European Championships in Cardiff.
After predictably losing to three of the top five teams in the world rankings, O'Hanlon's girls in green delivered a hat-trick of impressive victories in the second week.
Easily adjusting from fire-fighting to front-running, a dazzling display by O'Hanlon - cheered on by family, friends and Carrickcruppen clubmates - ensured they got the ball rolling with a 61-40 victory over a dangerous St Lucia side ranked one place below Northern Ireland last Monday.
Northern Ireland averaged more than a goal a minute as they recorded an emphatic first every victory in the Commonwealth Games, majestic centre O'Hanlon pulling the strings superbly and Noleen Lennon nailing the chances created in netting 33 of her 36 shots at goal.
Leading 16-10 after the first quarter, Northern Ireland had extended their advantage by four at half-time before really excelling in taking the third period 20-9 to the delight of the pockets of green-clad supporters with playmaker O'Hanlon on fire.
With her team in complete control, coach Kate Carpenter had the luxury of withdrawing both big guns for the final quarter - the only match minutes O'Hanlon sat out in the entire tournament -along with Lennon's shooting partner Oonagh McCullough to save them for the Scottish clash.
It was fitting that legends Lennon and O'Hanlon, regulars since the 2003 World Cup, were at the heart of a landmark day for Northern Ireland netball but there were greater highlights to come.
The emeralds went into Wednesday's crunch clash with the Commonwealth hosts in positive spirits but after the flying start of a 5-0 lead they had to display fantastic character in coming from five down to win 37-32.
It wasn't the perfect performance but the gallant greens showed great guts to turn the game around and silence the vociferous crowd with a fighback based on huge heart and superior fitness.
With the hosts looking out on their feet, O'Hanlon somehow found extra energy in the final quarter to break Scottish hearts by popping up everywhere to good effect as her colleagues lifted their game in response.
Scotland were 11-9 up after the first quarter and edged the second by the minimum margin but Northern Ireland stayed in touch and sneaked into a one-goal lead just before the last break. The final 15 minutes was exceptionally low scoring as the greens resolutely tightened the screw.
Having secured their objective of finishing eighth in line with the last World Cup, NI went into Friday morning's seventh place play-off against Wales with the pressure off and an opportunity to achieve something special.
In what was arguably their biggest game ever, Northern Ireland produced a dream display when it mattered most to storm to a thoroughly convincing victory on a barely believable 58-36 scoreline.
Their last win over Wales came in the 49-47 cliff-hanger which secured silver medals for the first time ever at the 2012 European Championships, when O'Hanlon won Player of the Match and she was again a hugely influential figure here.
The headline hero this time was her Larkfield clubmate, Lisa Somerville, an unused sub against Scotland who came into the starting team and netted 46 goals from 53 shots helped by sublime service from O'Hanlon.
Leading 16-8 after the first quarter, Northern Ireland extended their advantage to 31-18 by half-time and after narrowly losing the penultimate period they finished with a fantastic flourish to spark emotional scenes of celebration.
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