The 2014 FIBA World Championships have commenced in Turkey, with the Australian Opals opening their campaign with a commanding 90-57 victory of Cuba.
Pooled in Group C alongside Cuba, Korea and Belarus, after trailing 0-3 the Opals were never again headed, powering to a 33 point win behind the outstanding play of team Captain Penny Taylor. The Opals veteran wound back the clock, leading all scorers with 20 points with 4 rebounds and 4 assists. She had great support from Leilani Mitchell who dished out a game-high 8 assists as eleven Opals managed to score.
The 2014 Australian Opals in Turkey - Courtesy Basketball Australia
After Cuba scored the first three points of the game, the Opals quickly asserted themselves defensively, forcing their opponents into 7 first quarter turnovers. Australia took full advantage, with Taylor opening the Opal's scoring account with a strong drive, the first of her 11 points for the period. Taylor was in vintage form, scoring 11 of the Opals first 14 points and sparking a 22 point run, ending with a Belinda Snell triple and a Cayla Francis breakaway lay-up. While Cuba's Amargo hit a three to break Cuba's drought, it was simply all Australia as 8 of their 12-strong roster scored. The defense was ferocious, with the Opals losing nothing when the bench entered the game as evidenced by a Rebecca Allen block at the end of the quarter to deny Cuba once again.
Taylor started the second quarter as she did the first, quickly racing to 15 points. While Cuba started to find the bottom of the net, they were having difficulty guarding the Opals and preventing them from getting into the paint. The Cuban's then tried a zone and Taylor immediately responded with a 3-pointer, her 18th point of the game with more than half the quarter remaining. Amargo was doing her best to get the Cuban's back into the game and when Romero hit from long-range followed by Avila with another score, Cuba were on a run of their own and had closed to within 11 points.
Gabrielle Richards responded with a deep seal inside and a score off her own miss to help try to turn the momentum back Australia's way. Rachel Jarry nailed her first shot not long after and the Opals began to take control once again, heading into the half time break leading 45-31. Cuba's confidence grew throughout the quarter after outscoring Australia 25-22.
The second half opened with the Opals once again looking to run, with Laura Hodges powering her way to a three-point play to open the scoring. Playing an up-tempo game at both ends, the Opals tightened the screws once more defensively, allowing them to extend the lead out to 31 at the last break. It was a dominant quarter for the Australians, returning back to what worked so well in the first period as they outscored the Cubans 23-7.
Francis who was enjoying a very good game continued to crash the offensive boards to score on a second chance opportunity. Mitchell picked up her 8th assist when she fed Jarry for a transition triple and Australia were running all over their opponents. A late mini-run by Cuba closed the margin but they never really challenged as Australia triumphed 90-57 victory.
Courtesy Basketball Australia
Australia's big win came on the back of their outstanding defense that enabled them to push the ball in transition. Mitchell and Erin Phillips (4 assists) shared the reigns and ran the team well, however it was arguably their intensity at the other end that was even more important in driving the team's success. Rachel Jarry overcame a shaky start (7 turnovers) to finish with 13 points and 6 rebounds, while Snell (6 rebounds and 3/4 3PT) and Francis chimed in with 11 points each.
Cuba found the pressure too much to handle, turning the ball over 17 times and only shooting at 28% from the field compared to the Opal's excellent 58%. The Opals also took advantage of their superior size and depth, winning the rebound count 47-33, outscoring Cuba 44-18 in the paint and delivering 45 points from the bench.
Penny Taylor was happy with the first up win, stating that the team just wanted to stick with the game plan, especially given the loss of Elizabeth Cambage;
"Obviously we had some adversity to face and we have dealt with it well," stated Taylor.
"It is a real honour to always play for my country. I feel really lucky to be back out here and to play with these girls."
An excited Opals Head Coach Brendan Joyce was happy to win their first game, referencing his time with the Australian Boomers and their history of losing their opening games.
"We played our game. We are a running team and we played with high intensity defensively."
Australia next take on Korea on Sunday, 28 September 2014, with the game being broadcast live on ABC2 nationally from 9:10pm (Vic, NSW, Qld, Tas, ACT), 8:40pm (SA, NT), 7:10pm (WA).