One of the favourites coming into the tournament, Australia's Under 19 team has fallen 66-61 to Japan in their first game of the Women's World Championship.
Ezi Magbegor led the side with 21 points, but the remainder of the side shot just 28%, including 5% from three point range, as Japan's perimeter game and ability to get to the line served them well in serving the upset.
An early turnover from the Gems allowed Japan to score the first points of the game, but the Australians quickly hit back as Ezi Magbegor went to work in the paint. Whilst the Japanese side went with the outside shooting route in the early stages, the Australians chose to feed Magbegor and Chloe Bibby in the paint. Whilst Magbegor provided the Japanese problems at both ends of the floor, the game remained tight in a low-scoring first quarter. A pair of air balls in a single possession from the Gems was perhaps an extreme example, but an example nonetheless of the difficulty both teams had in finding scoring opportunities against some extremely aggressive defense. An Anneli Maley put-back tied things at 10-10, before some strong play in the paint from Zitina Aokuso a minute or so later culminated in the last scoring play of the quarter for the Gems, before Japan tied the game at 13-13 with a buzzer-beating three to end the term.
Samantha Simons opened the second quarter scoring to restore the Gems’ advantage to 15-13 before Bibby doubled the lead shortly after with some solid work in the post. With the Japanese bombing away from outside the arc without much luck, the Australians found opportunities to build their lead. Magbegor proved to be almost unstoppable around the rim, but Japan managed to hit just enough shots to keep themselves within striking distance throughout the second quarter. Soon enough, Japan had tied things up again at 23-23 courtesy of a pair of Kadysha Umezawa free throws, resulting in a Gems timeout.
Jaz Shelley found Rebecca Pizzey for a wide open look in the paint to edge the Australians ahead out of the timeout, before the Victorian point guard found Aokuso for an and-one opportunity, which the Townsville Fire recruit promptly converted. Japan continued to hit from the perimeter, but their free throw shooting cost them valuable points even as they retook the lead from the Australians at 29-28 heading into the final minute of the half. Australia had a chance to retake the lead going into halftime, but a turnover culminated in a last-second basket for Japan and it was they who took a 31-28 lead into halftime. Magbegor led the Australians at halftime with 8 points on 4/5 field goal shooting, and at times looking unstoppable in the paint, whilst Anneli Maley had a Windex-like effect on the glass in the opening 20 minutes to pick up six rebounds.
The third quarter started inauspiciously for the Gems with their first possession ending with the pass sailing into the bench, and Japan made the Australians pay with a mid-range jumper. Fortunately, the Australians’ second possession of the half ended with Magbegor holding the ball in close proximity to the basket, resulting in her fifth basket of the evening. Bibby followed up with a jumper, and when Maddison Rocci knocked down a corner three in the wake of a Japanese offensive foul, the Gems had taken a 34-33 lead less than two minutes into the second half.
The Australians continued to exploit their dominance in the paint as the quarter continued, with the ball regularly finding Magbegor inside. Despite being regularly double and triple-teamed by the Japanese defense, the new Canberra Capitals recruit managed to earn trips to the line and convert with regularity in the early stages of the second half. A couple of turnovers stifled the Gems’ rhythm, but with Japan unable to knock down shots from their preferred area around the perimeter, Australia maintained a slim margin deep into the third quarter. A late rally looked as if it might help the Japanese side tie the game, but Magbegor came to the fore at both ends with a steal and a basket in quick succession to keep the Gems ahead 46-40. Some free-flowing basketball in the final minute kept the scoreboard ticking over, but Australia retained a 48-44 margin going into the final term, with Magbegor continuing her domination, taking her tally to 17 points with a quarter remaining.
The Gems center delivered more of the same to open the final term, drawing a foul whilst working inside and converting the resulting free throws. Nine quick points from the Japanese followed, and with seven minutes remaining the Gems trailed 53-50 as the game appeared destined to come right down to the wire. A neat pass from Maley allowed Bibby to stop the run with a short-range floater before Rocci collected a long rebound on the Australians’ next offence to deliver her side a 54-53 lead.
Japan restored their lead before Rocci picked off a pass for a fast break lay-up to tie things at 56-56, and when Miwa Kuribayashi missed a pair at the line, the Gems were afforded the chance to retake the lead. However, with outside shooting accuracy deserting the Australians at vital moments, it was Japan who opened up a 62-56 lead as the game ticked into the final 2 minutes. Even a chase-down block from Magbegor was unable to stem the flow as the ball rebounded into Japanese forward Stephanie Mawuli’s hands for the open lay-up.
A Gems timeout ensued, and Magbegor pulled her team within four points from close range at the first opportunity. Despite this, Japan re-established a six point margin before Samantha Simons banked home a three to leave the game tantalisingly poised at 64-61, before Japan took a timeout with 18 seconds to play. An offensive foul on the inbound play from the Japanese side gave the Gems one last chance at sending the game to overtime, but multiple attempts at the game-saving three pointer were off target. Eventually, the Japanese side gained possession and Mawuli was sent to the charity stripe. A perfect trip to the line put Japan up 66-61 with negligible time remaining, condemning the Gems to a first-up loss in their World Championship campaign as a 22-13 final quarter helped secure Japan the victory.
The Gems were no doubt hampered by their inability to hit shots from beyond the line, connecting on just 1 of 20 for the contest, but there will be myriad things that the side will have to rectify if they are to go deep in this tournament, not least their inability to make the most of their superior size and dominance in the paint.
Magbegor led all scorers with 21 points on 8/11 shooting from the field, and the Gems will no doubt want to utilise her presence in the paint more substantially going forward. Bibby also finished in double figures with 10 points with 7 rebounds. Maley was a menace on the boards to finish with 13 rebounds alongside her 4 points. The Gems will take on Mexico in their second game of the pool stage tomorrow, with a win vital if they want to secure a favourable draw in the knockout rounds.