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Opals future arrives early despite World Cup final loss to USA
Australia have come away from the 2018 FIBA World Cup with a silver medal after the USA led from start to finish to earn a 10th title.
Slow starts to each half from the Opals proved to be pivotal in the gold medal game, as the Americans extended an eight-point halftime lead beyond the 20-point mark on their way to a 73-56 victory against an Australian side that hung with the favourites for long stretches.
Young starlets Alanna Smith and Ezi Magbegor were outstanding for the Opals, while Liz Cambage finished with 7 points, 14 rebounds, 5 blocks, and a spot in the All-Star Five.
It didn’t take long for Cambage to get involved, blocking a Diana Taurasi lay-up on the opening possession. But a pair of quick-fire threes from Taurasi and fellow UConn legend Breanna Stewart opened up a 6-0 lead for the US inside the opening minute. With the Australians unable to find the bottom of the cylinder for the first four minutes as a number of shots rimmed out, the USA extended their lead to 10-0.
With the battle between Cambage and Brittney Griner in the paint intensifying as the opening quarter continued, Kate Ebzery finished from slightly longer range, knocking down a pull-up for the Opals’ first points. Griner drew a shooting foul on Cambage shortly after as Sandy Brondello called an early timeout with her team’s field goal percentage sitting in single figures.
The Opals came out with a lot more energy after the timeout, and it paid off as Sami Whitcomb and Alanna Smith combined on a pick and roll before linking up again in transition. Cambage then added her first points of the game with a mid-range jumper of her own, but the US maintained an 8-point cushion, leading 18-8 in the latter stages of the opening term.
Sami Whitcomb buried a three and Smith came out with a monster block on Griner, and slowly but surely, the Opals chipped away at the lead. Alex Bunton came in to replace Cambage and barely missed a beat with some outstanding defence as well as a late bucket, as he first quarter ended with the Opals down 20-15 and the team in a far better situation than they trailed 13-2 early.
A battle of the second units ensued to open the second quarter, but Brondello quickly re-inserted the starters due to a slow start to a quarter on offence. Cambage finished from close range immediately after, but the US maintained a healthy buffer at 26-17. Ezi Magbegor came into the game after not seeing the court against Spain the previous night, with her length and tenacity on defence immediately posing issues for the team in red. She went going coast-to-coast off a defensive rebound to finish with the unusually easy lay-up. When Magbegor added another basket off a Bec Allen assist, the Opals had cut the just 4 points.
The US however would always have another run in them, and when Taurasi reaped the full benefits of being fouled by Allen on a three-point shot, an 8-0 run pushed the lead beyond double-digits and saw Brondello take another timeout to regroup for the final two minutes. Allen added the first points out of the timeout before Ebzery hit a tough runner with the shot clock winding down to keep the Opals in touch. They prevented the US from scoring a single point in those final couple of minutes after the timeout to trail 35-27 as the teams headed to the locker room.
The Australian scoring was extremely spread in the first half, with Cambage, Ebzery, Smith, and Magbegor leading the way with four points apiece. It was the lowest scoring half of the tournament for Cambage as the USA did a god job of limiting her scoring, but she remained a defensive presence, leading the rebounding with 7 boards as her ability to protect the rim proved vital.
With the Opals shooting 1-12 from deep in the first half and drawing only two free throws to the US’s 15, there was certainly plenty of scope to improve the offence in the second half. However, it was Sue Bird who opened the scoring for with a deep three as once again the Opals failed to get on the board early in the quarter, unable to add a point for over four minutes. Although the Opals defence was staunch in this period, including a Cambage block on Stewart, the American's were still able to add the occasional basket. With nothing doing for the Australians at the other end, this was enough to increase the lead to 44-27 and force an Opals timeout mid-way through the third term with the US on a 9-0 run.
Out of the timeout, the Opals finally added their first basket of the second half courtesy of a Bunton clean up after a Talbot miss on a drive. Smith drew the offensive foul on Stewart immediately after before knocking down a pair of threes, and suddenly the Opals looked to have far more rhythm. But the US team continued to have a decent amount of success at the other end, maintaining their 15-point advantage before a late flourish extended the lead to 61-38 with a quarter, late turnovers slowing the Australian offence.
Cambage’s fifth block of the game was quickly followed by an Ebzery drive to the basket to open the final term, before a spate of offensive fouls at both ends prevented either team from getting into an offensive rhythm. As the points dried up, Magbegor shot over the outstretched hands of Elena Delle Donne for yet another highlight reel play in an outstanding performance from the 2016 Under 17 World Cup MVP.
With the teams combining for just eight points in the first five minutes of the final term, the margin barely moved in either direction as the USA gradually funneled in their lesser-used players down the stretch. A tough finish off a drive to the basket from Tess Madgen gave Opals fans something to cheer about in the latter stages, and for a brief moment the margin was lowered inside 20. However, the USA were in a more than comfortable position at this stage as the bench played the closer role. Although the Opals finished the 73-56 defeat on a high as Tessa Lavey buried a buzzer-beating three for her only points of the game, the Opals actually won the final term 18-12.
While the result may not have been surprising to most observers, the selection of Most Valuable Player certainly raised a few eyebrows, particularly in Australia. Liz Cambage was overlooked for MVP in favour of the USA’s Breanna Stewart. Stewart certainly enjoyed an outstanding tournament, yet general consensus among the media, even in the US, seemed to be that the award was destined for Cambage who finished with averages of 23.8 points and 10.5 rebounds per game and generally dominated throughout the competition. As consolation, Cambage was named to a slightly front court-heavy All-Star Five that featured fellow big's Stewart, Astou Ndour of Spain, and Belgium’s Emma Meesseman alongside the lone guard of Taurasi.
In winning the title, the USA qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Spain earned bronze after defeating tournament surprise packets Belgium 67-60 in the third place playoff. Australia however will leave Tenerife with a silver lining, returning as a top 2 national in the world of women's basketball and with a young core set to return for the next Olympic Games.
Australia 56 (Smith 10p, 2b; Cambage 7p, 14r, 5b; Magbegor 6p, 4r) USA 73 (Griner 15p, 3r; Taurasi 13p, 4a; Stewart 10p, 8r)
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 - lost to USA 56-73
Final Standings for 2018 FIBA World Cup
1 USA (Gold) 2 Australia (Silver) 3 Spain (Bronze) 4 Belgium 5 France 6 China 7 Canada 8 Nigeria 9 Japan 10 Turkey 11 Greece 12 Senegal 13 Latvia 14 Korea 15 Argentina 16 Puerto Rico