The Opals’ Olympic Qualifying campaign in Bourges has hit an early bump, with the Australians falling to a 72-63 defeat to France in front of a boisterous home crowd.
A minus-11 turnover differential did no favours to the Opals, who were led by 19 points and 20 rebounds from Liz Cambage, and 20 points from Bec Allen.
Sandy Brondello opened up the game with a lineup featuring plenty of length, as Bec Allen slotted in alongside Leilani Mitchell, Steph Talbot, Cayla George, and Liz Cambage against a French lineup featuring UC Capitals point guard Olivia Epoupa, WNBA star Bria Hartley, and 2016 WNBA champion Sandrine Gruda.
That length worked wonders in the early stages, with Allen combining with Cambage in the pick and roll early as WNBA All-Star Cambage dominated early proceedings with 7 first quarter points alongside 6 rebounds. Allen was also able to use her height against Hartley, whilst at the other end, France lived and died by the midrange early in the piece with mixed results, culminating in an 11-8 lead for the Opals.
However, once the first subs were made with just over three minutes remaining in the opening term, France began to seize momentum, reeling off a 6-0 to finish the first quarter, with little changing once the majority of starters returned for the second quarter. Threes from Marine Johannes and then from Diandra Tchatchouang – assisted by Johannes – extended the margin to 20-11 and forced a timeout from Sandy Brondello.
Johannes buried another from deep out of the timeout, before the Opals returned to putting the ball in the basket. Cambage earned an and-one, and French coach Valerie Garnier would have been ropeable after the diminutive Mitchell grabbed the offensive rebound from the missed free throw. The WNBA Most Improved Player immediately drained a three, and with the margin back to five, it was France’s turn to talk it over.
Cambage continued to dominate the interior, forcing the French to play the game almost entirely from the perimeter. It seemed only a matter of time before the Opals’ defence would garner a complete turnaround, and when Mitchell buried her second three of the opening half on as many attempts, the French lead had completely disappeared as the scoreboard read 27-27.
However, this had been a first half of long runs, and once again the French responded as Hartley led the home side on an 8-0 run as Cambage sat on the bench with a trainer tending to her right shoulder. The Opals star quickly shook off whatever was troubling her though, returning for the final minute of the half in an attempt to stem the French momentum.
Epoupa earned an unsportsmanlike foul on Ebzery after a tangle on a fast break, but the Novocastrian atoned for that error with a three to cut France’s lead to 36-30 before the home side called a timeout to draw up a play to end the half. But it ended in precisely nought, leaving the home side’s lead at six points at halftime. Cambage clearly stood out as the dominant factor, posting 11 points, 12 rebounds, and 3 assists in 15 minutes of play.
Early turnovers to open the second half from the Opals allowed the French to extend their lead to 40-30, and even an Australian timeout couldn’t stop the home side’s momentum. Endene Miyem quickly knocked a shot down from deep, but Cambage found some success against Gruda before Mitchell found a rolling George to get the Australian offence humming again. A 4-0 run quickly became 9-0 as France’s midrange accuracy deserted them, before Hartley decided that a longer-range shot may work better, with improved results.
Cambage continued to make entering the paint an unwise choice for the home side, dishing out a monster block on Hartley before heading to the bench for a short spell. However, unlike the first half, the French didn’t immediately take advantage of the Opals star’s absence, with a Sarah Michel three their only basket in Cambage’s minute or so off court.
Allen swished home a three on a broken play to get the margin back to 50-45, and with France over the fouls limit, a couple of bonus trips to the stripe saw the Opals have the chance to tie the game with their final possession of the third quarter. But a moving screen call on Cambage followed by a buzzer-beating midrange shot from Hartley instead saw France lead 54-49 with ten minutes to play.
Three fouls in the opening 40 seconds of the final term proved a sub-optimal start to the final term, particularly as Cambage picked up her fourth in a rebounding contest. Soon after, baskets to Hartley and Johannes pushed the margin back to double-digits, and once again Brondello was forced into an early timeout.
However, the home side were unperturbed by the attempt to stop their momentum. A 12-2 start to the final term put France 15 points up, but the Opals were able to find the in-form Allen in good shooting positions, and the New York Liberty wing duly obliged with a pair of threes to give the Opals some hope with six minutes to play and led to a timeout from the home side.
Brondello went back to Cambage in an all-or-nothing move, and it soon paid off as the star centre got to the basket before almost getting a putback to fall that would have cut the deficit to 5 with three minutes to play. However, she would get that second basket in quick time with a nice baseline drive off an inbounds play as the Opals made their charge.
But as quickly as Cambage led her side back into the game, her direct opponent for most of the game, Sandrine Gruda, stepped up for the French side. The veteran managed to rip the ball away from Cambage, and on the ensuing possession, drew some heavy contact from Allen to earn a slightly contentious and-one call, duly knocking down the extra shot.
Down 7 with under 90 seconds to play, the clock became the Opals’ enemy and fouling became the primary option. Quickly it became apparent that the result was secure for France as Iliana Rupert and Lauren Nicholson saw their first seconds of the game in the final minute, with the home side posting a 72-63 victory.
Allen led all scorers with 20 points, burying 4 of 5 from deep in the process, as well as 4 rebounds and 4 assists. Cambage was, as per usual, a dominant force for the Opals, posting a stunning 19 points and 20 rebounds whilst also dishing 4 assists. However, despite the pair combining to shoot 15 of 28 from the field, the remainder of the Opals shot just 7 of 31. France were also afforded 17 more field goal attempts than the Opals, courtesy of an 18-7 turnover margin. Sandrine Gruda led the way for France with 16 points and 11 rebounds, whilst Bria Hartley added 13 points, 7 rebounds, and 8 assists. Marine Johannes added 12 points and 4 assists, shooting 4 of 11 from deep as all of her points came from three-point range.
The Opals now face Puerto Rico on Sunday morning, looking to rebound with a win that would go a long way to securing their Olympic berth. The Puerto Ricans pulled off a massive upset over Brazil on the opening day, winning 91-89 in overtime against a team that had demolished them by 29 in last year’s AmeriCup. That game, as with all Opals games in this tournament, will be shown live on Fox Sports and Kayo.
Opals Olympic Qualifying Tournament Schedule
Friday, February 7: Australia lost to France 63-72
4:00am, Sunday, February 9: Australia vs Puerto Rico
12:00am, Monday, February 10: Australia vs Brazil