In their opening game of the 2016 FIBA U17 World Championships in Zaragoza, Spain, Australia were narrowly beaten by Canada in a tough 81-78 loss.
Both Australia and Canada were favoured to both progress from Group C, with the winner expected to top their pool. The contest was a fitting battle between two teams that many believe have a chance at earning a medal.
Australia started nervously, unable to execute offensively and committing 4 early turnovers. Canada took advantage, opening up a commanding 10-0 lead and things looking dire early for Australia. Samson Froling finally got Australia on the scoreboard with two made free throws. Two three-pointers by Tom Fullarton and Froling helped ensure that Australia clawed back to within 17-22 at the first break.
Starting like they ended the first period, Australia were more confident and composed throughout second quarter. A Sean MacDonald triple saw Australia tie the game up at 25-all, when Fullerton connected on a long-range bomb of his own, he had helped his country to a 30-29 lead - its first of the game. Kyle Zunic was also getting involved, feeding Mate Colina for the and-one for which he was unable to convert. Kody Stattman made a tough circus shot in traffic to keep Australia in front before Canada hit a late three to tie up the game at 34-all at half time.
Dragan Elkaz got going early in the second half for Australia, connecting on an open three to put Australia up by 3. Canada reverted to full court pressure, forcing Australia into some errant turnovers and creating fast break scoring opportunities for which they capitalised on opening up a 12-point lead. For Canada, 6'11 big man Simi Shittu was doing most of the damage in the open court. Froling continued to be composed, looking dangerous every time he touched the ball and managed to keep Australia within reach. When Kyle Bowen scored his first basket with 17 seconds left, Australia went into the final change trailing by 10 (50-60).
Froling continued to impress early in the fourth term, this time with his ability to pass out of the post and in traffic as he set his team-mates up for scores. However it was Elkaz and Callum Dalton who combined for baskets to help erase the deficit and take back the lead as part of a 9-0 run. Australian led by as many as 12 points before Canada replied with an 8-0 run of their own. Elkaz was on fire for Australia. When he made 2/3 from the line after being fouled on a three-point attempt, Elkaz had amassed 17 points for the quarter and his side leading by 3 points with under 2 minutes to play.
Canada's Rowan Barrett came up big with a nasty dunk and foul for the three-point play that put Canada ahead by 1 point with under 32 seconds to play. Australia then missed their chance to take back the lead and were forced to foul. Barrett would make the front-end of his two free throws and Australia regained possession with under 10 seconds left. Canada fouled with less than 2 seconds remaining, with Elkaz's potential game-tying three-ball blocked under extreme pressure, resulting in a narrow three-point loss.
After such a slow start, Australia impressed with their intensity and team work, although their ability to advance the ball under full court pressure was called into question in the second half. Turnovers haunted them, committing 25 compared to Canada's 15. Australia shot better than 45% from beyond the three-point line, yet only converted 50% from the charity stripe, while Canada were worse with 46%.
Elkaz exploded in the final term with 17 points to finish with an equal game-high 22 points including 5/8 from long-range. Froling looked to be the class act, delivering a composed 15 points on a perfect 5/5 from the field (1/1 3PT) and 4/6 from the free throw line. He also added 8 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 block in 31 minutes. Dalton was also solid in adding 11 points on 4/5 shooting with 5 rebounds in the tough loss.
Australia will need to bounce back quickly as they next tackle China on Saturday, tipping off from 10:15pm AEST.
Australia 78 (Elkaz 22p; Froling 15p, 8r; Dalton 11p, 5r,; Fullarton 8p, 7r) Canada 81 (Shittu 22p, 12r; Barrett 19p, 4a; Nembhard 14p; Smith 11p)