Australia have advanced to the gold medal game at the 2018 FIBA World Cup after withstanding every challenge thrown at them by hosts Spain and their boisterous home crowd in Tenerife.
In a contest befitting the world stage, the semi-final had a little bit of everything. Terrific team play, outstanding defence, heroic moments, lead changes, and not to mention the drama. Yet there was one major difference between the two sides; only one had Liz Cambage.
Overwhelming tournament MVP favourite Cambage both mesmerised and polarised on her way to amassing a game-high 32 points, 15 rebounds and 4 blocked shots in a dramatic performance. Spain had no answer to Cambage's size, skill and sheer will to win, ensuring her country returned to the gold medal game at a World Cup since 2006 - the same year that Australia broke through for their first and only ever gold medal at that level.
"It was tough," said Cambage after the game. "We knew it was going to be a hard, hard 40 minutes going into this game and it was.
"They (Spain) are a group of superstars. We just came up with it in the end. We played our hearts out and left it on the court. I've always said 'screams from the haters got a nice ring to it'. That's the stuff that gets me going. I love it. I've so much respect for Spain. I love this city, I love this island, I love this country. They go hard for their country and I respect that."
A dominant opening first quarter had the Australians in control in front of a vocal Spanish crowd. The Opals first possession saw Cambage called for an offensive foul, but she made up for it soon after by scoring the first basket of the game via a nice feed from Kate Ebzery. The latter scored next on a dribble drive, and when Cambage scored again soon after, the Opals were leading 6-2.
The Opals continued to pile on the scoreboard pressure, with Steph Talbot hitting from beyond the three-point arc, and when Cambage converted and and-1, the Opals were in command. The lead extended to 12 when Allen enjoyed a successful trip to the charity stripe, and with the margin then reaching 15 in the Opals favour, it had the home side clearly on the back foot. However despite a further two free throws from captain Jenna O'Hea, the home side fought back much to the delight of their fans, closing the margin to back under 10 points at the first break, 15-23.
Cambage was having a huge influence on the game, scoring inside and drawing fouls almost at will, all while playing up to the crowd. Yet a bizarre offensive foul which was called on the centre who was leading the break, saw Brondello wisely give her a well-earned rest. With the crowd booing Cambage at almost every opportunity, the Dallas Wings star then began inciting them even further from the bench with her playful responses.
The defensive by both teams stepped up to a new level in the term, with the Opals struggling to get a basket. Spain continued to edge closer, yet Bunton ended a 4 minutes scoring drought for the Opals, hitting 1-of-2 from the line before Whitcomb scored on a lefty-hand lay-up to keep the Opals ahead by 6. Alba Torrens went on to drain back-to-back threes to tie up the scores, forcing Brondello to call timeout and with the crowd on their feet.
Out of the timeout, Cambage returned to the floor and immediately was sent to the free throw line making both, but Spain continued to ride their momentum, with Ndour hitting a three of her own from the wing. A heads up play by O'Hea found Talbot open for a lay-up, but Spain responded with the last score of the half through Anna Cruz, ensuring the home side had stolen a 1 point advantage at half time.
Playing with intent, Cambage fed Ebzery who was able to sneak in back-door for the first score of the second half, putting the Opals back in front to set up a classic third term of women's basketball. Ebzery then came up with a long two as the shot-clock expired to bail out the Opals offense. Bec Allen was looking to also step up, dialing long distance from the wing. But it was all about Cambage, with the superstar centre in the thick of everything. She was drawing fouls almost at will, including a fourth personal from masked centre Lauda Gil picked up her fourth foul. Importantly, Cambage was converting from the free throw line, although was warned by the officials to stop waving her hands at the crowd.
Talbot came up with a big steal to thwart a Spanish drive, but George gave up an offensive at the other end as both sides heard plenty of official whistles blown against them. Torrens and Beatriz Sanchez scored on consecutive baskets to take the lead back for their country, but who else but Cambage stepped up again with another big play. This time she caught the ball deep in the paint to draw a telling fourth foul on Ndour, making 1-of-2 from the line to tie up the scores. She then scored on a quick turnaround in the paint, and when she boxed out strongly at the other end, Laura Nicholls went over her back and was called for her fourth foul, forcing Spain to call timeout.
Spain's front line was in trouble and having a nightmare in trying to contain Cambage, with their three stars in Nicholls, Ndour and Gill all on now on four fouls. Yet they would continue to fight back. O'Hea fouled Marta Xargay was open in the corner for three, with the Spanish guard converting them all to steal back the lead. Cambage then found herself walking a tightrope herself, picking up her third personal on an offensive foul when the Spanish player flopped. With the momentum shifting back to Spain, it was Laia Palau who hit a mid-range shot to give her country a 5 point lead.
Australia's shooting had gone cold, especially with Cambage being rested on the bench. Sami Whitcomb then slipped at the top of the key and spilled the ball, allowing Spain to run the floor and score. While George scored on a tough inside move, Palau hit a triple at the top of the key to send Spain into the final break leading by 8 points - the largest margin of the game.
With Cambage back on court, the Opals quickly made that lead evaporate. She immediately made an impact through an easy score, before Talbot found Ebzery in the corner for a three. Ebzery, who was playing a superb game, then fed Cambage inside for the deuce. Australia were back in the lead when the centre followed up her own miss successfully, and with the Opals shifting up a gear defensively, it was the Opals starting to wrestle control of the game.
O'Hea found herself being guarded by Ndour in a mismatch and then used her veteran savvy to take heron the dribble and eventually draw her fifth foul. It proved a double-blow for the Spanish, with O'Hea making both to tie the game back up after Spain had drained a triple on the previous possession.
A massive blocked shot from Cambage turned the Spanish back at the other end, but she continued to taunt the Spanish crowd following the lay and was duly hit with a technical foul - her fourth for the game. Spain sensed an opportunity to strike, and when Talbot had her pocket picked on the next possession in the back court for an easy score, it was the host nation back ahead by 3. Things were starting to go against the Australian's, with the quickest 5 second count in memory resulting in an inbound violation.
But Cambage scored and drew a fifth foul on Nicholls in response, tying the game back up with the made free throw. With Spain over the foul limit, George drew a foul and made both the resultant free throws to give the Opals a 2 point lead with under 3 minutes to play.
The final 3 minutes were frantic and full of massive defensive plays by both sides. Cambage came up with a massive blocked shot at one end, and then very nearly picked up her fifth foul on chasing down an offensive rebound. But that rebound proved important for the Opals, as George duly sank a crucial three-pointer with just over 2 minutes remaining.
Cambage blocked another shot on the next play, but Spain returned the favour on the Opals next possession. After Palau closed the margin to 3 on a lay-up, O'Hea and Allen came up with big defensive plays of their own down the stretch.
When O'Hea came up with a timely steal inside the final minute, the ball somehow ended in Cambage's hands at the other end that she would duly score to put the Opals up by 5 with 32 seconds remaining. Allen then blocked Torrens' three-point attempt at the other end, and with Ebzery then fouled by Spain to stop the clock, she would make 1-of-2 from the line. On the second missed free throw, George pulled down the offensive rebound and the game was over, with Australia prevailing by 6 points and earning a much-deserved trip to the gold medal game.
It was a game of contrasting styles, with the Opals dominating the rebound count 53-34, while outscoring the Spanish 32-22 in the paint. The home side outscored Australia 17-2 on fast break scoring and hitting 7 three-pointers to the Opals 4. However when it counted most, the Opals had ice in their veins at the free throw line, making 22-of-26 from the charity stripe.
Cambage hit 11-of-16 from the field and 11-of-12 from the free throw line in another efficient scoring performance, but she was far from playing a lone hand for Australia. Ebzery finished with 10 points and 3 assists, George added 9 points and 11 rebounds, while Allen had 8 points and 6 rebounds. For Spain, Ndour was best with 17 points, making her early final quarter exit all the more important for the Opals.
Awaiting the Opals in the gold medal game is Team USA, who advanced to the final after accounting for tournament surprise-pack Belgium 93-77. Veteran Diana Taurasi was best for the Americans with 26 points, with 2018 WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart adding 20 points.
Going head-to-head with Australian centre Liz Cambage was something USA star Britney Griner was looking forward to.
"Liz has been killing it and it's funny, because we're good friends and we root for each other all the time," Griner explained after their semi-final win. "So, when we go up against each other, it's always a battle. I think everybody wants to see that match-up of two bigs - two of the biggest players going against each other and I think it would be good for basketball."
Australia came home from the 2016 Rio Olympics without a medal after earning bronze at the 2014 FIBA World Cup. In 2018 they have already assured themselves a medal, but it is gold they are taking aim at. With the USA overwhelming favourites, 2006 World Champion Jackson reinforced her belief that the Opals were the team that could dethrone their arch rivals in speaking with The Pick and Roll pre-tournament.
“I don’t think America have an answer for Liz,” affirmed Jackson.
“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.”
Australia won gold in 2006 after defeating host nation Brazil in the semi-finals, with Penny Taylor going on to be named tournament MVP. Could 2018 be a case of history repeating itself?
Australia take on USA at 5:00am AEST in the gold medal game, with the contest broadcast live on Fox Sports.
Opals World Cup Schedule & Results (all times AEST)
22-Sep: defeated Nigeria 86-68 23-Sep: defeated Argentina 84-43 25-Sep: defeated Turkey 90-64 26-Sep: Quarter-Final Qualifications (Opals not required to play) 28-Sep: Quarter-Finals – defeated China 83-42 29-Sep: Semi-Finals – defeated Spain 72-66 1-Oct: Gold Medal: vs USA, 5:00am