In a thrilling conclusion to the 2017 FIBA Asia Cup for Women, Australia's quest for a debut gold was thwarted by Japan who prevailed 74-73 to win their third straight title.
Despite a mammoth 30 point and 15 rebound haul from eventual tournament MVP Kelsey Griffin, Japan's ability to make big fourth quarter shots ultimately saw them come away with the victory in what was a game befitting the occasion, gaining revenge for the Opals 9 point win in the preliminaries.
With Australia's plan to silence Japanese star Manami Fujioka executed to near perfection, Japan found an unlikely heroine in Saki Mizushima. The shooting guard stepped up with the performance of her career, draining 7-of-9 from three-point territory to lead her side with 26 points which included some massive shots late in the contest. Making Mizushima's performance all the more remarkable was the fact she had scored a total of 18 points across the previous four games (she did not play against Australia in their first encounter).
The first quarter saw Australia get off to a good start, with Snell and then Griffin draining triples to put the Opals up 8-2 to open the final. Katie-Rae Ebzery then fed Tolo and Griffin for scores that further increased the margin out to 8 points, with Griffin in dominating form at both ends. The next few minutes saw neither team able to take their chances as the defenses tightened up. Alanna Smith entered the game and increased the margin out to 10, but Japan would go on the finish the opening term strongly to tie the game up at 17-all.
While Griffin would score the first basket of the second period, it was Japan who continued to surge through Miyazawa's triple and Machida's score. Japan's speed and ability to knife their way into the paint was causing trouble for the Australians. Yet Griffin and Opals veterans Belinda Snell and Marianna Tolo helped steady things, as they directed the offence back through the interior. Three-point plays by Tolo and Smith were followed by a buzzer-beating finish to the half by Steph Blicavs helped Australia finished off the half strongly and take a 39-33 lead into the main break.
Mizushima was on fire to open the second half, draining three straight triples as Australia took over 3 minutes to get on the board thanks to an Ebzery long-range bomb. Griffin stepped up to counter the shooting from Mizushima, yet the Australian's were starting to be drawn into foul trouble, with Mansfield picking up her fourth, and Steph Blicavs picking up two in quick succession on three-point attempts. Japan took full advantage of the opportunities to take a 8 point lead. Griffin would not let things slip any further, clawing the margin back to 4 before Mizushima completed her big third term with another basket that ensured Japan entered the final period with an important 59-53 advantage.
Australia opened the final term strongly, scoring 9 straight points through Tessa Lavey, Griffin and Tolo to take a 3 point lead. Mizushima continued her amazing performance by responding with a couple more treys before a three-point play from Ebzery. Snell and then Tolo scored to tie the game up at 1:36 left in the game and a thrilling finish was guaranteed.
Mizushima hit her sixth three-pointer of the game with 1:24 left to force Australia into a timeout. While Snell missed the three-point attempt reply, Griffin pulled down the offensive rebound for the put-back score. Japan missed their next shot, giving Australia a chance to steal the lead back with 49 seconds left. Tolo then turned the ball over, giving their opponents the chance to ice the game. Another Japanese miss saw Griffin pull down rebound number 15, with a last-gasp shot by Snell off-target, Japan would hold on to win by just 1 point in arguably the best game of the tournament.
Griffin capped her game-high 30 point (11-of-19 FG) and 15 rebound performance with 2 steals and 3 blocks, while Tolo was the only other Opal to reach double figures in scoring with 13 points (6-of-9 FG) with 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks. Snell added 9 points with 7 rebounds and 4 assists, while Ebzery chipped in 8 points, 4 rebounds and 6 assists.
Australia were undone by three-point shooting, with Japan draining 11-of-25 from long-range compared to the Opals' 4-of-19, with their 36-20 scoring advantage in the paint unable to make up the disparity.
Capping off a wonderful debut tournament wearing the green and gold, Griffin was named tournament MVP after averaging 17.9 points, 9.1 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.3 steals and 1 block per game. She was joined in the All-Star Five by Japanese duo Manami Fujioka and Moeko Nagaoka, China's Li Yueru and Korea's Lim YungHui.
Having qualified for the 2018 FIBA World Cup, the Opals have uncovered some next-generation Opals stars, with Griffin demonstrating her value alongside fellow debutants Lauren Mansfield and Stanford's Alanna Smith. With a host of WNBA-based stars and others who were either injured or unavailable set to return for contention for selection, Australia is well placed in the run to next years' World Cup.
Australia 73-74 Japan AUS: Griffin 30, Tolo 13, Snell 9 JAP: Mizushima 26, Miyazawa 11, Nagaoka 10
Opals FIBA Asia Cup Results
July 23: Australia defeated Korea 78-54 July 24: Australia defeated Philippines 107-65 July 25: Australia defeated Japan 83-74 July 27: Quarterfinals – Australia defeated DPR of Korea 81-48 July 28: Semifinals - Australia defeated South Korea 81-64 July 29: Final - Australia lost to Japan 74-73