The Opals are the pinnacle of Australian women’s sport and return to the world stage this week with the 2018 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in Tenerife, Spain.
Lauren Jackson AO, knows all too well what it takes to win a World Cup. In 2006, she played a leading role in helping Australia secure a ground-breaking fold medal from the 2006 World Championships held in Brazil.
As one of the true greats of Australian basketball, there is little Jackson has not achieved in women’s basketball. Four Olympic Games for one bronze and three silver medals, three World Championship appearances for two bronze and a world title, plus a Commonwealth Games gold in 2006.
Alongside Jackson on that 2006 gold medal-winning side was tournament MVP Penny Taylor. Along with the rest of a talent-laden Opals team, they successfully navigated the tournament undefeated, beating Russia 91-74 in the gold medal game. That milestone is etched into Australian basketball folklore, and now twelve years later, Jackson is confident that the current Opals team is on the cusp of once again being able to break through for gold, a milestone that remains one of her most cherished achievements.
“This period in the lead up is very crucial for them – especially without Lei [Leilani Mitchell], it leaves that tough position for them to fill,” explained Jackson in speaking with The Pick and Roll on the eve of the Opals World Cup campaign.
“All of the WNBA girls have been together for a year or so now and I think that will really help them through this.
“With Liz [Cambage] at the forefront of basketball in Australia, it’s such an interesting time. There is no player on the planet that is as dominant as she is at this moment. I feel I am her number one fan from the sense that I know what she is truly capable of doing. Having her in the middle is something that nobody else in the world has. The next step for her is to lead her team to a championship win.”
While Cambage is the undisputed star of a talented Opals roster, Jackson was also quick to highlight the younger talent coming through, like Ezi Magbegor and Alanna Smith, who could be expected to step up to a new level in Spain.
“The younger players coming through only add to that depth and ability [of the Opals roster] and important to see how they grow from this tournament experience,” added Jackson. “They look really good, and having Sandy Brondello at the helm as a great coach and mentor who understands her players so well, only adds to what they can achieve.”
The Opals build up to the World Cup has been disrupted by campaign ending injuries to back court duo Mitchell and Lauren Mansfield. While Tessa Lavey has already joined the team, Sami Whitcomb who is fresh off a WNBA Championship with the Seattle Storm has yet to hit the hardwood in any exhibition play. Alex Bunton has been slowed by a lower leg injury, with Cambage, and Jenna O’Hea also rested in their last start loss to hosts Spain to further hampered preparations. However the Opals have drawn a relatively benign group featuring Nigeria, Argentina and Turkey – the latter who were beaten by the Opals in a recent practice game.
Despite the challenging lead up, Jackson was confident the Opals could successfully overcome their group stage rivals to advance deep into the tournament in their quest for gold.
“I think the girls will get through these games fairly convincingly,” outlined Jackson. “With a leader like Liz who is in such a great frame of mind, a group of young girls ready to play hard and for their teammates, I just think with a happy Lizzy in a squad like this, the skies the limit for our Opals.”
Australia are in rarefied air when it comes to world Cup participation. Only the USA (103) and the Soviet Union (69) have won more World Cup games than Australia (65), and along with Brazil, no other country has been able to take home gold. As one of only four countries to be embarking on 15 or more World Cup campaigns – their 14th in succession – the Opals return only Rebecca Allen and Cayla George from the bronze medal winning team in 2014.
With the USA overwhelming favourites, Jackson reinforced her belief that the Opals were the team that could dethrone their arch rivals.
“I don’t think America have an answer for Liz,” affirmed Jackson. “Our squad is very talented and will only get stronger with more time together.”
The Opals commence their World Cup campaign against Nigeria at 8:30pm AEST on Saturday, 22 September, with every one of their games broadcast live on Fox Sports.
Opals World Cup Schedule (all times AEST)
22-Sep: vs Nigeria @ 8:30pm
23-Sep: vs Argentina @ 8:00pm
25-Sep: vs Turkey @ 8:30pm
26-Sep: Quarter-Final Qualifications
Australian Opals for 2018 FIBA World Cup
Rebecca ALLEN / New York Liberty
Alexandra BUNTON / Sydney Uni Flames
Elizabeth CAMBAGE / Dallas Wings
Katie-Rae EBZERY / Perth Lynx
Cayla GEORGE / Dallas Wings
Tessa LAVEY / Dandenong Rangers
Tess MADGEN / Townsville Fire
Ezi MAGBEGOR / Melbourne Boomers
Jenna O’HEA / Melbourne Boomers
Alanna SMITH / Stanford University
Stephanie TALBOT / Phoenix Mercury
Sami WHITCOMB / Seattle Storm