Opals fall to China in thrilling finish to group play

A thrilling finish to the Opals’ final group game of the Asia Cup proved not to be a memorable one for Australian fans as China emerged with a 70-69 victory to take top spot in Group B.

Katie-Rae Ebzery led the way for the Opals with 13 points, but the true star of the contest was Chinese guard Siyu Wang, who finished with 18 points and came up with the game-sealing play in the final seconds.

This game had been billed as the closest contest in Group B, but the early stages belied what would be seen later as the Opals took advantage of a number of Chinese defensive breakdowns. Ezi Magbegor, Cayla George, and Jenna O’Hea all finished wide open looks from close range in the early minutes, and with China’s shot selection far from ideal, the Australians quickly opened up a 10-2 lead before a Chinese timeout after four minutes.

The Chinese side came out with some increased aggression after the timeout, showing more inclination to drive to the basket, slowly turning the tide in their favour. No longer wasting possessions with low-percentage shots, China pulled within three to force an Australian timeout late in the term. Little scoring came in the final minute, with China tallying the last points of the quarter to trail 20-19 after a quarter.

Swarming Chinese defence prevented the Opals from adding to their tally in the opening stages of the second quarter, whilst a three from Liwei Yang handed China a 22-20 advantage. However the Australians regrouped before China could push too far ahead, with Shao Ting’s tough driving finish matched by Ebzery to keep the Opals within a single possession.

Siyu Wang had other ideas, though. The Chinese guard took the game by the scruff of the neck, getting to the basket with aplomb and leading her team to a seven-point lead. With Ebzery leading the way, a late three from Darcee Garbin gave the Opals the chance to go in at halftime down by six. New York Liberty centre Han Xu would earn and convert an and-one opportunity in the dying seconds to see China take a 44-35 lead into halftime, with the team in red out-shooting the Opals 55% to 41%. However the game could have been much closer at the break as the Australians hit just 8 of 13 free throws, whilst China connected on 4 of 5.

Magbegor opened the third quarter with a solid finish after taking contact, before Bec Allen came up with two steals in as many possessions. Yet each resulting Opals possession ended in a turnover, costing the Australians precious chances to make a significant dent in the margin. With Ebzery and Magbegor continuing to go hard at the basket, the Opals remained right in the contest in a low-scoring third quarter.

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The Opals’ defence certainly showed improvement from what had been on show in the second quarter. Magbegor picked up her third foul just after the midpoint of the term and was forced to set a spell on the bench as Abby Bishop returned to the game after also picking up three fouls in the first half. Immediately, the defensive pairing of Bishop and Garbin in the front court posed problems for the Chinese side in a sight that would please both Opals and Townsville Fire fans. However, the more pleasing sight was the narrowing gap between the scores as the Opals drew within four points at one stage late in the third quarter. The term would end with China leading 56-51, but with star performer Siyu Wang, as well as Li Yueru and Liwei Yang all sitting on three fouls.

The mid-range game had failed the Opals spectacularly in the early stages, but O’Hea stepped up to bury one to cut the deficit to a single possession with still nine minutes to play. A thirty second lapse allowed that lead to double back to six points as a shooting foul followed by a turnover in the back court allowed China a couple of consecutive opportunities. George buried a three but Wang responded in kind. When Allen forced Li Yueru into her fourth foul, China were forced to sit one of their best performers on the day with six minutes remaining.

George picked up her fourth shortly after, before Allen picked up her fifth and final foul on a 50/50 call that also put China in the bonus with still over four minutes remaining. Garbin and Bishop returned to the game, reprising their defensive performance from the first half. A Blicavs three from the corner cut the deficit to two, before Garbin took advantage of Li’s four fouls to lay the ball in uncontested as the Chinese centre was forced to avoid potentially picking up a fifth foul.

Another basket from Blicavs cut the deficit to 68-67 with three minutes to play, before some ill-advised shot selection saw neither side add to their total for two minutes before a Chinese timeout.

Scintillating defence from O’Hea and Bishop on separate possessions gave the Opals a chance to take the lead with 25 seconds to play, and Mitchell took advantage. Driving to the rack, the WNBA Most Improved Player finished a tough lay-up to leave China with 10 seconds to find a basket.

Shao Ting took possession of the ball, and everybody in the arena knew a spin move was coming. However, the Opals still couldn’t stop it as the Minnesota Lynx guard dropped in the shot to take the lead. The Opals had one play to win it, but Wang completed an outstanding individual performance by tipping away O’Hea’s attempted pass to a cutting Ebzery. The ball was recovered by China, who dribbled out the final couple of seconds to secure a 70-69 win.

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Six Opals players scored 7 or more points, but Ebzery was the only Australian in double figures with 13 points. O’Hea tallied 6 assists to go with 8 points, whilst Garbin, Magbegor, and Mitchell all collected 5 rebounds. However, the Opals were out-rebounded 46-37, giving up 19 offensive boards to China, who finished with 13 second chance points to Australia’s 4.

The Opals will still be fully expected to reach the semi-finals as they take on Chinese Taipei in the semi-final qualifiers, but their path will now take them through defending champions Japan in the semi-finals rather than the final.

The game against Chinese Taipei will take place on Friday night, at 12:30am AEST (Saturday morning), and will be shown live on Fox Sports 507 and Kayo Sports.