FREMANTLE kept its finals ambitions well and truly alive and ended the Western Bulldogs' dream of back-to-back NAB AFL Women's premierships after a tense 18-point victory on Sunday.
In energy-sapping conditions at Fremantle Oval, the Dockers outlasted the spirited visitors to claim a fourth victory for the season, keeping them in touch with Conference A leaders Adelaide and North Melbourne on 16 points.
With two matches to go, the Dogs are all but out of contention for a preliminary final after falling to a third straight defeat, 8.4 (52) to 5.4 (34).
It is shaping to be a thrilling finish to the third AFLW season, and Fremantle will likely need to beat the Cats in Geelong next Saturday and North Melbourne at home in the final round to clinch a maiden finals berth in Conference A.
Comeback kid Kiara Bowers starred for Freo on Sunday, racking up 23 touches, laying a mammoth 16 tackles, with eight clearances and a goal to inspire the victory.
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Dana Hooker continued her excellent season, picking up another 21 disposals and extracting nine clearances.
Dangerous forward Kellie Gibson led a high-powered attack, drilling three goals, while Sabreena Duffy and Gemma Houghton chipped in with two apiece.
Monique Conti starred for the Bulldogs, picking up 20 disposals and winning six clearances, while Katie Brennan had 18 touches and booted a brilliant left-footed goal in the third quarter, but it wasn't enough.
The Dogs had their chances, despite being thumped 37-17 in the inside 50s, and were in front by a point early in the final term when Brooke Lochland won a free kick in the goalsquare.
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But Fremantle owned the territory game thereafter, and broke the visitors' resistance, with young gun Duffy having a hand in all three goals in the last quarter.
Pressure from both sides was intense early despite the hot conditions, but Fremantle got its outside game going first and took all the momentum into quarter-time after quick goals to Bowers and Gibson.
Bowers broke the deadlock from 25m out before Gibson read the ball best off hands out the back and snared back-to-back goals from the restart, rewarding the Dockers for a dominant 10-3 inside 50 count.
But the visitors fought back, inspired by a brilliant Conti clearance and snapped goal to Aisling Utri from the opening centre bounce of the second term.
The efficient Dogs booted three majors to one for the term, including a team-lifter by No.1 draft pick Isabel Huntington on the stroke of half-time in her return from a knee reconstruction, dragging Paul Groves' side back to within a point.
Freo defender Ange Stannett sent a scare through the camp midway through the term when she was helped from the field and treated for an apparent right knee issue, but the former Perth Glory soccer star returned before the main break. The Dockers said she will have scans after experiencing hamstring tightness.
It was goal-for-goal to start the third term, with the Dogs hitting the front after an outrageous snap by superstar Katie Brennan, before Gibson answered with her third to level the scores 26-all.
Gemma Houghton drilled a clutch set shot for the home side and Fremantle edged out to a six-point break at the final change, before surging home to remain undefeated from three games at Fremantle Oval this season.
Did you see that?
The Dogs needed a spark after Fremantle took a two-goal lead into quarter-time and found it from the opening bounce of the second term after a clinical piece of clearance work. Kimberley Rennie palmed the ball expertly down to Monique Conti on the fly, with the midfielder weaving through traffic and delivering long inside 50, where Aisling Utri crumbed and drilled a team-lifting goal from 35m. All in the space of 10 seconds, and the visitors were back in the hunt.
Welcome back, Izzy
Isabel Huntington has been through hell and back due to injuries and, in her return from a knee reconstruction, the young star showed the precocious talent which saw her taken with the No.1 draft pick in 2017. Under a high ball inside 50, Huntington judged the flight better than renowned aerialist Ebony Antonio, using her body to edge out the Dockers gun and double-grab a crucial mark. Huntington went back and slotted the goal from 35m directly in front – and was suitably swamped by her teammates in a touching moment.
It was over when…
The Dockers had all the play late in the final term but couldn't strike the killer blow until rising star Sabreena Duffy found some space inside 50 and speared a pass to Gemma Houghton in the goalsquare for her second, pushing the margin out to two goals. Dufffy was there to hammer the final nail in the Dogs' coffin only moments later, winning a high free-kick and 50m penalty to the goalline to secure victory and send Freo's fans into raptures.
The ladder now
It gets tense from here. The Dogs are out of Conference A finals calculations, but Freo is only percentage out of second spot and right in contention for the top two behind resurgent Adelaide and newcomers North Melbourne. The Demons are a game further back and will need results to go their way to qualify for finals for the first time. Fremantle's players sang the song with gusto on Sunday, well aware their destiny remains in their own hands.
"It's an opposition we've really had trouble with in the past. We dominated inside 50s and probably should have been further ahead, but when they levelled up in the last quarter, I was really pleased with the mental resilience of the group to finish off strongly. It's not a nice way to do anything when you're relying on others, and that would have been the case today if we had of lost." - Fremantle coach Trent Cooper
"There was plenty at stake, to remain in the finals race. Adelaide giving North a touch up wouldn't have helped us for anyway for that. Geez, we had a crack, though. The girls really responded to the way we played last week. 37-17 inside 50s makes it pretty difficult as well, and our backs were under immense pressure." –Western Bulldogs coach Paul Groves
The Dockers hit the road for the long trip to take on Conference B leaders Geelong at GMHBA Stadium on Saturday, when the Dogs head to Marvel Stadium to host conference rival Melbourne.
FREMANTLE 2.1 3.2 5.2 8.4 (52)
WESTERN BULLDOGS 0.1 3.1 4.2 5.4 (34)
Fremantle: Gibson 3, Houghton 2, Duffy 2, Bowers
Western Bulldogs: Utri, McCarthy, Huntington, Brennan, Lochland
Fremantle: Bowers, Gibson, Hooker, Cain, Donnellan, Seth
Western Bulldogs: Conti, Brennan, Lochland, Utri, Blackburn, Lamb
Fremantle: Stannett (knee/hamstring)
Western Bulldogs: Nil
Umpires: Rebeschini, Johanson, Simmonds
Official crowd: 4785 at Fremantle Oval