The Opals have wrapped up their tour of Europe which saw them scout some opponents they could face in Rio. With 8 games played across a fortnight, they finished the tour with a 5-3 record which saw them going up against some strong host nations and opponents who were at full-strength.
Coming off a great tour of Japan where they swept the host nation in a 3 game series, coach Brendan Joyce’s game plan centered around sharing minutes, perhaps to help with his decision to decide on a final 12 for Rio and determine team chemistry.
Laura Hodges helped re-energise the Opals after completing her season with Bourges Basket in France, while Marianna Tolo returned from her ACL injury which had sidelined her for the last 12 months. Tess Madgen also returned to the side after missing all 3 games in Japan due to an ankle injury.
Liz Cambage was the standout for the Opals, providing consistent, quality performances in all 8 games. Katie-Rae Ebzery, Tess Madgen, Leilani Mitchell and Steph Talbot also stepped up and competed well in the absence of two of the most integral players to the Opals – Penny Taylor and Erin Phillips. The two stars were missing in action due to their WNBA commitments, and we can expect to see these two starting for the Opals in Rio.
The Opals began their tour in Spain, and whilst there were a few hiccups to begin with as a majority of players’ luggage did not arrive with them, they managed to still get off to a solid start.
A comfortable 42-point victory over Argentina was just the start they would have hoped for, with a score of 90-48, largely thanks to a 25-7 second term. Joyce was most pleased with the defensive effort of the Opals combined with their ability to execute efficiently.
Cambage was the highlight in the paint with 23 points and 10 rebounds, whilst Ebzery finished with 13 points, with Madgen and Hodges both chipping in 10 points each.
Two days later, the Opals went down 55-58 to host nation Spain in an extremely tight contest. The Opals started slow and were only able to make 10/26 free throw’s, a game in which they shot themselves out of. Talbot was the Opals best with 16 points and 3 steals, Hodges was dominant with 10 points, while Rachel Jarry and Ebzery both tried their best with 8 points each. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough to combat Spain who were running hot with the help of their roaring home crowd.
Joyce was pleased with the opportunity to play in front of an intense home crowd as it gave the Opals the chance to prepare for when they play Brazil in Rio.
“Overall our defence was good but we didn’t capitalise on our aggressive offence,” Joyce said.
“We got what we expected in front of a very vocal home crowd with good home support. It was an excellent game for our preparation to play Spain in Spain. The game gave us another scenario of what to expect playing in Brazil.”
Next stop on the tour was Italy, a location in which more successful performances were observed across the board. The Opals won all 3 games against Italy, Belgium and Cameroon.
Despite trailing by 4 points at half time against Italy, the Opals were able to grind it with a 23-12 third quarter effort to eventually prevail 54-56. The battle of facing a tough home crowd proved it’s no easy ride playing a host nation. Some solid defense from all of the Opals and efficient scoring silenced the crowd, giving them the win.
The Opals proved how much of a professional outfit they are in the next two games, dismantling Belgium 81-54 and Cameroon 82-28. Liz Cambage dominated for the Opals, with her presence inside proving far too strong for the opposition. Joyce was pleased overall with his side’s efforts in Italy.
“The games in Italy were a great opportunity to work on our game from an offence and defensive perspective…It is always a positive experience to play against different styles of play and it was pleasing to finish the tournament with a strong performance against Cameroon,” stated Joyce.
As usual, the Opals also managed to sneak in some ‘selfies’ as they went sight-seeing at the popular tourist destination.
— Basketball Australia (@BasketballAus) June 4, 2016
The back-end of the tour proved to be the most demanding and delivered the most challenging opposition for the Australian’s, winning just 1 of their 3 games.
Things got off to a promising start, with a 90-69 win over a quality outfit in China, with Tolo enjoying her first game back from her ACL injury.
— Basketball Australia (@BasketballAus) June 7, 2016
Tolo’s return provided the team with a spark, with Cambage doing all the damage for the Opals, scoring 9 points in the second term as Australia went on a run. Cambage finished the game with 18 points and 7 rebounds in a commanding performance, while Ebzery was instrumental with 16 points and 5 assists as Tessa Lavey picked up 13 points of her own. It was a performance that pleased the coach.
“It was our best four quarter effort on tour with some tremendous execution under pressure,” Joyce said.
Canada would provide a sterner test, as the Opals lost 60-72. The loss came about despite a great 18-10 start in the opening term which they were unable to capitalise on. The Opals gave Canada 22 points off a terrible 22 turnovers, and were only able to shoot at 37% for the match. Cambage top-scored for the Opals with 15 points and 8 rebounds, Suzy Batkovic was great coming off the bench with 13 points, and Mitchell tried her best with an impressive 9 assists.
Whilst Joyce was displeased with the result, the display gave him the ability to address areas of improvement before Rio.
“The positives are they exposed areas we need to address… and we must continue to learn and improve. We rotated our roster but struggled to find an effective combination after a great start,”Joyce said.
Host nation France then inflicted the Opals second straight defeat, defending their home court to earn a 58-50 victory. France capitalised on shooting 19 more free throw attempts to earn the 8-point win, but the Opals did have some solid performers in Cambage, Mitchell and Talbot. Tolo also proved she was back at full strength with 7 points and 3 steals in 20 minutes on the court in what was an encouraging display.
Whilst the tour wasn’t a complete success in terms of results, Joyce was interested in scouting opposition who were at their full strength, attaining a lot of insight from the tour which will help the Opals focus their plan ahead of Rio.
Madison Square Garden and the USA up next
After returning to Australia, the Opals will conduct two final camps before announcing the team in the coming weeks.
The Opals will head to the the US for a tour in what will be their final preparation for the Rio Olympics. Basketball Australia CEO Anthony Moore was excited about the opportunity for the Opals to test themselves against the number one women’s ranked team in the world across three exhibition matches.
“While the tour is the final preparation for our Jayco Opals, it represents a historic moment for Australian basketball to play at Madison Square Garden, arguably the most famous basketball stadium in the world,” Moore said.
“The Jayco Opals have medalled at the past five tournaments and this tour represents another opportunity for our world-class female athletes to showcase their talents in the biggest basketball market on the planet,” Moore further added.
The opportunity for the Opals to test their standing against team USA ahead of Rio is a coup for Basketball Australia. It should provide the springboard for the Opals to be able to perform at their best at the 2016 Olympics as they look to bring home gold.