Just over a year ago, 12 of Australia’s finest young female basketball players endeavoured on a journey that captivated the minds and hearts of the Australian basketball community.
That team was the Under 17 national team, better known as the Sapphires, and the journey culminated in a World Championship gold medal after dispatching of the United States in the semi-finals and demolishing Italy in the championship game. Fast forward 12 months, and eight members of that side will soon attempt to secure their second gold medal in as many years at the FIBA Under 19 Women’s World Cup in Italy, with the tournament commencing on July 22.
The Sapphires were among the favourites in 2016, but there was still an element of the unknown about the Australian team in the wider basketball world. There will be no flying under the radar for this Gems side though, with all bar one member of the team having already showcased their talents at least one age group World Championship, be it Under 17s, Under 19s, or both.
Two players, Anneli Maley and Ezi Magbegor already have an Under 19 World Championship medal, with both being members of the Gems side that won bronze in 2015. Both players were used sparingly in the latter stages of that tournament, but come into the 2017 tournament as the most experience pair in the side at this level.
Magbegor of course already has an Under 17s World Cup MVP award to her name, and is unique alongside her team mates as she represented her country at an Under 19 world championship before doing so at the Under 17 level. The new Canberra Capitals center is already one of the most exciting prospects in Australian basket, and her performances in last year’s Under 17 tournament captivated the wider international audience.
Maley, on the other hand, is fresh off an outstanding half-season with the Adelaide Lightning in the WNBL, and will link up with an impressive University of Oregon side following the tournament as her career continues to develop.
Outside of Magbegor, seven more members of 2016’s Under 17 gold medal side will be making the trip to Italy, several of whom have already secured places at WNBL teams, be it as development players or as full-fledged members of the roster.
Kiera Rowe and Rebecca Pizzey will link up with the Dandenong Rangers, whilst Lara McSpadden joined the Sydney Uni Flames last season and has shown rapid development in the 12 months or so since winning gold in Spain. However, it is Monique Conti who has been the most impressive of the WNBL cohort, winning 2016/17 Rookie of the Year after securing an All-Star Five berth at the Under 17 World Cup despite coming off the bench for the Sapphires. Along with emerging stars Jaz Shelley, Abby Cubillo, and Samantha Simons, a talented and cohesive group of players will form the majority of a team that will look to emulate their Under 17 success at the Under 19 level.
Whilst the group of returning players from last year’s Sapphires will be on the young side, they will be joined by some more experienced names, all of whom have experience at the international level.
Maddison Rocci has played alongside many other members of this squad as part of the Centre of Excellence program, and will return to Canberra for a prolonged stint in the nation’s capital, joining Magbegor at the Capitals for this season. Rocci was also a member of the Under 17 team that finished fifth at 2017’s World Championship, playing alongside Mississippi State signee Chloe Bibby, who is also in this year’s Gems side. Bibby was also part of last season’s Dandenong Rangers side which reached the WNBL Grand Final before going down to the Sydney Uni Flames.
Rounding out the squad will be Townsville Fire signee Zitina Aokuso, who came to prominence amongst the wider basketball community when a video emerged of her throwing down a dunk at a development camp in 2016. Dunking isn’t all Aokuso can do though, and the Queenslander will certainly add a presence in the paint for a Gems team looking to go a couple of steps better than the 2015 team managed.
The US team will be the favourites, seeking a seventh straight title, with the majority of their squad already with a college season under their belt. One player, Tyasha Harris, won a national championship with South Carolina this season, whilst Crystal Dangerfield reached the Final Four with UConn, and Ruthy Hebard was one of the top freshmen of the season at Oregon. Russia will be strong, with any potential match-up between Maria Vadeeva and Ezi Magbegor sure to be one of the most electric contests of the entire tournament. The Australian side may be young, but they have proven themselves to have one of the most talented sides in recent memory, and they have been included in most, if not all, discussions with regards to which teams can win this tournament.
FIBA will be streaming all games live via their YouTube channel with links provided below.
Gems World Cup Schedule (all times AEST)
July 22: Australia vs Japan at 9:30pm (watch live) July 24: Australia vs Mexico at 12:15am (watch live) July 25: Australia vs Hungary at 10:00pm (watch live) July 26: Round of 16 July 28: Quarterfinals July 29: Semifinals July 30: Final
Chloe Bibby Monique Conti Abby Cubillo
Anneli Maley Lara McSpadden
Maddison Rocci Kiera Rowe Jaz Shelley