Gems survive Latvia test, set up quarterfinal with Russia

Australia's Gems gave up a late lead but quickly rebounded to edge their way past Latvia, 61-56 in their Round of 16 match-up at the FIBA Under 19 World Cup. The victory set up a quarterfinal match-up against Russia.

Ezi Magbegor led the way with 17 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocked shots, with three more players finishing in double figures as the Australians just managed to secure the win.

Little changed in the early stages from the previous night’s game against Hungary for the Gems, with outstanding early defense let down at the other end by some poor shooting numbers. As a result, the teams combined for just two field goals in the first five minutes, with a Latvian free throw pushing the score to a paltry 4-2 in favour of the team from the Baltic coast.

Chloe Bibby tied things up from close range, but Latvia responded with their second three-pointer of the opening term from the left corner. With the Latvian team doing their utmost to deny the inside pass, Samantha Simons was introduced into the game for the Gems and promptly came up with a trademark three to offer something new for the Australians’ opponents to deal with. However, overall it was a poor shooting quarter from both teams, particularly the Gems, who shot just 3-16 from the field. Latvia’s 4-15 mark didn’t exactly light it up either, but was enough to secure a 13-8 lead after ten minutes of play.

Zitina Aokuso ensured the scoring would start a little earlier in the second quarter, grabbing her own miss and sinking the hook shot on the put-back to trim the margin to three. Yet the Gems continued to struggle despite creating some decent looks, as Latvia extended their margin to 17-10 before an Australian timeout just shy of four minutes into the second quarter.

Bibby set the perfect screen to open up a lane for Simons to get into the key and drop in a floater out of the timeout, before Magbegor created some room around the basket as things began to look slightly more promising as the period progressed. The two previous scorers then combined again, as Magbegor kicked to Simons for the deep two. When Maddison Rocci followed up with a basket of her own, the Gems had created an 8-0 run and taken an 18-17 lead.

Latvia responded with a sharp feed inside for two, but Anneli Maley hit from the perimeter to restore the Gems’ advantage. With the Australians finding their range and Latvia leaving a number of points at the line, the Gems were able to create a 26-22 lead by the end of the quarter. The lead could have been more had Rocci been rewarded with a foul call after being collected on a last-second heave which fell short. Even in spite of that, the shooting in the latter stages of the second quarter was much improved from the Gems as they shot 9-22 from the field for the term.

A defensive stop straight out of the gates was followed by an and-one play from Magbegor that took the Gems’ center into double figures, extending the Australian lead to 29-22 in the process. With their ball movement improving as the game progressed, the Gems were able to find Simons an open look, with the South Australian knocking down her second three of the contest to keep the Gems’ score ticking over.

Whilst the Australians maintained their lead as their improved shooting continued, Latvia took advantage of a couple of openings to make the most of close-range drives to the basket, remaining within striking distance of the Gems until Jazmin Shelley knocked down a three. Turnovers and defensive stops ruled much of the last couple of minutes of the third quarter, with a neat Monique Conti pull-up jumper proving valuable in the latter stages, especially as Latvia scored the last six points of the quarter after a four-point play to end the term. That little run in the dying seconds pulled Latvia within a single basket at 39-36 and set up a potentially thrilling final term.

Rocci found Magbegor with a pinpoint outlet pass to open the fourth quarter scoring, before the pair combined again, this time after Rocci drove baseline and found Magbegor charging into the key, pushing the Gems out to a 43-38 lead. Latvia responded with a three from Digna Strautmane, a wise option given that the Gems were altering almost every shot they were attempting from close range at that time.

After a brief scoring drought, Shelley ramped things up with a trey, but Latvia hit right back with one of their own as the atmosphere in the arena began to increase. A three-point play from Bibby followed and suddenly it seemed as if the Gems had generated a bit of momentum despite the tight 49-44 scoreline heading into the final four minutes.

Latvia were far from done, though. They drew back to within two, forcing an Australian timeout, and a neat hesitation move from Janeta Rozentale led to the tying basket as the clock wound down inside two minutes. A rebounding foul on Magbegor sent Strautmane to the line, and suddenly Latvia had the lead as she converted the pair.

Shelley was collected attempting to rebound her own three, and like Strautmane, converted both to tie the game. Spectacularly, Maley picked off the inbound pass, and Shelley hit the resulting mid-range jumper to completely flip the script in the space of ten seconds of play. Latvia continued to earn trips to the line, keeping pace with the Australians until Rozentale split a pair to keep the Gems ahead 55-54 with possession and 37 seconds to play. Eleven seconds later, it was 57-54 as Bibby found her way into the paint and connected on a left-hand finish, using the glass with aplomb.

Latvia responded with a basket but with 20 seconds, still had to foul to stop the clock. Rocci just managed to convert a pair at the line as the second rattled home, before Shelley came up with a vital defensive play, swatting a Latvian pass out of the air, resulting in another pair of Rocci free throws. The Gems’ captain sank both, delivering a nail-biting 61-56 victory to see the Gems move on to play Russia in the quarter-finals.

Magbegor chalked up another double-double, finishing with 17 points on 8-14 shooting. Shelley, Simons and Rocci each finished with 10 points apiece, with Rocci also tallying 6 rebounds and 6 assists. Maley was again dominant on the boards, finishing with 10 rebounds. However once again the shooting percentage left a lot to be desired, but 9-10 free throws in comparison to Latvia’s 15-23 from the line went a long way to make up for that.

The Gems now move on to the quarterfinals where they will play Russia on Friday, 28 July at 9:30pm AEST. The Russians finished top of their group, winning their games by an average of 35 points before knocking off Mali in the Round of 16.

The Pick and Roll will be streaming the Gems’ contest against Russia live with commentary via Facebook.

Box Score

Gems World Cup Schedule (all times AEST)

July 22: Australia lost to Japan 61-66 July 24: Australia defeated Mexico 104-34 July 25: Australia defeated Hungary 75-51 July 27: Australia defeated Latvia 61-56 July 28: Quarterfinals - Australia vs Russia July 29: Semifinals July 30: Final