After breezing through their Group C games with an average winning margin of 36 points across three games, the Australian Opals encountered Canada, a team ranked 9th in the world. While the Opals did not shoot well from the field, they were relentless defensively, smothering the Canadian's across all four quarters on their way to a 63-52 victory. With the win, the Australian's progressed to the medal rounds where they will await the winner of France and the USA in a game to qualify to play for gold.
Courtesy Basketball Australia
While it was a classic team performance defensively by the Opals, they were sparked by the stellar play of dynamic guard Erin Phillips who was the barometer at both ends of the court. Phillips finished with a game-high 16 points with 3 rebounds and 2 assists. She received some great support by Marianna Tolo who finished 1 rebound shy of a double-double with 13 points and 9 rebounds.
Phillips opened the scoring with a nice jumper, however Canada then reeled off the next 6 straight points as the Opals were unable to capitalise on some good scoring opportunities inside the paint. Marianna Tolo was providing an early influence yet again at both ends, with the game being played at a frenetic pace, and with few breaks and some very good defense being played by both teams.
When Phillips made a deep jumper and was fouled, finishing off the bonus free-throw, the Opals led 14-13 in what was proving to be a see-sawing affair. Coach Brendan Joyce maintained the rotations going in order to maintain the pace and the pressure on the Canadians.
Stepping up late, Mitchell hit a big triple to edge the Opals ahead 19-17 at the first quarter break - a period that saw no timeouts and the game played a break-neck speed. Australia only shot 25% from the field, however hit 10/11 from the free throw line to keep their noses in front.
Mitchell opened the second quarter by beating the shot clock with a tough mid-range jumper. At the other end, the Opals then pressured the Canadians into an air ball as the shot clock expired to demonstrate the defensive intensity of the Australians who were simply unrelenting.
Slowly but surely, the Opals started wearing the Canadian's down to grow a small 26-18 lead when Cayla Francis nailed a three from the top of the key. the growing margin forcing the Canadians to call the first timeout of the game with just over 6 minutes into the second quarter. Taylor, who was receiving a lot of attention from her minders, finally got going when she hit a nice fade away jumper for her first of 6 points for the quarter. The referees were allowing the players a lot of leeway, lending itself to becoming an overly physical game with a lot of contact going uncalled.
With the final possession of the half, Mitchell stepped up once again to nail a big buzzer-beating triple to send the Opals into the main break with a 12 point buffer (36-24) and with all the momentum. Despite earning a 12 point lead, the Opals shooting was poor, missing a lot of relatively open looks in the paint.
The Opals defensive pressure continued to force the Canadians into poor shots and turnovers as the second half got underway.
Canada hit back-to-back 3-pointers to fight back to edge to within 10 points with just under 4 minutes left in the third quarter.
Playing outstanding basketball at both ends, Phillips was leading the Opals charge. She was making plays defensively, made some beautiful passes, and then stepped up to make some big long-range shots including another three-point play. On the very next play, the Opals pressure forced a back court violation and a Francis triple to see the Opals back up 51-33 as a result of a 10-2 run, eventually leading by 16 points at the final break.
An unsportsmanlike foul on Tolo resulted in another 2 points made from the line. Australia backed it up with a Taylor basket and Australia increased the margin to 18 points. Tolo was having a great last quarter, making another basket inside thanks to the assist from Taylor. While Canada fought on bravely, they were simply no match for the depth of the Australian's and the relentless pressure they delivered across all four quarters.
The win came about despite Australia shooting a tournament low 38% from the field and 25% from beyond the arc. The major difference was that the Opals were aggressive offensively, resulting in making 21/25 from the free throw line compared to Canada's paltry 6/10.
With Phillips starring and Tolo shining, Mitchell also contributed 10 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists, while Francis chimed in with 9 points and 5 rebounds. Taylor was blanketed but still managed to deliver 8 points, 3 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 blocked shots.
The is no doubting that the Opals are gelling as a team and buying into Joyce's game plan. When asked after the game as to whether beating Canada to make the final four at the World Cup was a relief, this is what Joyce had to say after the game to the media;
"Absolutely! What we have been through the past few weeks, losing Lauren (Jackson) and Lizzie (Cambage) it has just been amazing."
"We were expecting a tough game and we got one."
"We stuck to our task defensively for about 85% of the game. We have created a situation where we have a lot of depth. Erin Phillips was the one who got it going for us tonight."
"These girls are tough, to step up after what has happened to make the final four is amazing. Now we have to enjoy the week, and focus on coming up with a plan to beat the US. We know it is a tough ask. We can't fear them."
Australia is scheduled to face the USA in the semi final after they accounted for France. The game will be broadcast live on ABC2 in Australia from 5:15am AEDT on Sunday, 5 October 2014.