Melbourne coach Mick Stinear heaped praise on Karen Paxman after the stand-in skipper starred in a 17-point qualifying final win over Fremantle in hot and blustery conditions at Casey Fields.
With star captain Daisy Pearce out injured, the Demons led from start to finish on Saturday to score a 5.10 (40) to 3.5 (23) win that set up a preliminary final against the Crows in Adelaide.
“She’s always been a hard worker,” Stinear said of Paxman. “She’s always competed from contest to contest but this year she’s matching that with physicality and really imposing herself on games. She was brilliant today and led the way well.”
Paxman gathered 20 possessions, while Maddison Gay was also influential with 19 touches and a goal in the win that ended the Dockers’ season.
Fremantle coach Trent Cooper was left to rue his team’s inability to take advantage of first use of the stiff breeze.
“Melbourne were really good in that first quarter … that breeze was really strong,” Cooper said. “We won the toss and kicked with it for a change and it was probably a tactical error. We should have gone into it (first). But they were just first to the ball and cleaner.”
Fremantle star Kiara Bowers laid 17 tackles and amassed 20 disposals, but the visitors struggled to find their rhythm throughout in the tricky conditions.
The Demons poured on the pressure from the outset – they had 11 inside-50s to one at one stage – and led by six points at quarter-time thanks to Alyssa Bannan’s clever goal in traffic.
Melbourne made better use of the wind in the second term and skipped away from the visitors. Shelley Scott did the damage with back-to-back goals, the Demons keeping Fremantle scoreless to lead by 19 points at half-time.
Ashley Sharp’s long-range goal soon after the restart sparked the Dockers into action. Brenna Tarrant hit back for Melbourne with a priceless goal against the wind, her first at AFLW level, but majors to Sabreena Duffy and Gemma Houghton slashed the margin to four points at the last break.
Fremantle have earned a reputation for finishing games strongly this season, but could not find a way through the well-organised Demons defence. Melbourne peppered the goals with the final use of the breeze before Gay put the icing on the cake with the only goal of the quarter with 12 seconds remaining.
In the day’s other AFLW qualifying final, Collingwood star Brianna Davey propelled Collingwood to a thrilling six-point win over North Melbourne at Victoria Park.
The home side trailed by 14 points at three-quarter time but kicked the final three goals to score a 7.8 (50) to 7.2 (44) win that sets up a preliminary final against the Lions in Brisbane.
Davey was instrumental with 31 possessions, while Sophie Alexander and Chloe Molloy booted two goals apiece. Ashleigh Riddell and Emma Kearney were important for the Kangaroos, who fell behind early but stormed into the lead with five unanswered goals.
Jasmine Garner threaded the eye of the needle from deep in a pocket for North’s first, but the opening quarter belonged to the home side. Alexander, Molloy and Jaimee Lambert all hit the scoreboard with the rampant Pies in full flight.
But Collingwood couldn’t capitalise on their dominance in the second quarter and the Roos hit back late. Bethany Lynch scrambled home a goal from close range and Sophie Abbatangelo booted her first to slash the margin to three points at half-time.
Abbatangelo booted her second after the restart to put her side in front for the first time. When Lynch and Riddell converted tough set shots from the boundary line the Kangaroos led by 13 points.
Alexander’s second major broke North’s unanswered run, but Collingwood trailed by 14 points at the last break.
Kristy Stratton started the Pies’ fight back, Molloy made it a one-point game and Tarni Brown kicked the sealer as the home side finished strongly.