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Opals one step closer to 2024 Olympics with Asia Cup bronze
The Australian Opals claim the 2023 Asia Cup bronze, after taking care of business against New Zealand.
Image credit: FIBA
While a gold medal was out of reach for the Australian Opals at the Asia Cup, they made sure to come away with a medal, claiming bronze in a comprehensive win over New Zealand on Sunday afternoon in Sydney.
Having already locked in their place at the FIBA Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournaments early next year, the Opals had achieved their main goal of keeping the Olympic dream alive, but with a medal up for grabs, Australia still had plenty to play for.
Tess Madgen sets the tone, once again
Image credit: May Bailey Photography
As had been the case in important moments throughout the tournament, it was captain Tess Madgen who set the tone when her team needed her early. She scored after a strong drive to the bucket on Australia’s first possession and scored her team’s first five points of the game, all of which were the result of aggressive play.
That aggression shown by Madgen was infectious, with Keely Froling and Anneli Maley following suit as soon as they checked into the game halfway through the first quarter. New Zealand was keeping it close until Froling checked in and immediately scored six consecutive points. Having played such a vital role for Australia at the tournament, Froling made sure her presence was felt, with her inside game coming to the fore as the Tall Ferns struggled to battle down low against Australia’s size and athleticism.
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After Froling got going, it was Maley who then torched the Kiwis. Her impact off the bench was extraordinary as she set up a triple for Madgen and then went to work herself. Maley has had inconsistent playing time throughout the tournament, but her play made coach Shannon Seebohm simply have to play her for major minutes as the tournament went on. Maley’s work ethic is second to none and she thrived against a New Zealand squad that didn’t have a lot of size. Maley is often undersized in matchups and she obviously doesn’t take a backwards step in those situations, but she absolutely thrived against New Zealand, fighting against players her own size or smaller.
After Maley and Froling dominated the late stages of the first quarter and early parts of the second, Australia found themselves with a game-high 13-point lead, 32-19, four minutes into the second term. To New Zealand’s credit, they battled away and kept challenging the Opals as Peninia Davidson’s work inside the paint led to great things for the Kiwis.
A battle between two fatigued teams
In the second half of the second quarter, Australia’s intensity dipped slightly as it started to look like a battle between two teams who had played six games in seven days. The hectic schedule had clearly, and understandably, taken its toll on both outfits. Because of this, the lull from the Opals wasn’t taken full advantage of by New Zealand, whose offence was somewhat stuck in mud, just as Australia’s was. A driving bucket from Maddy Rocci to end the first half ensured Australia headed into the main break with a handy lead, 39-28.
After a slow second quarter, Australia pumped up the pressure in the third quarter, returning to the court with a real vigour as Darcee Garbin became the focal point of the offence. Garbin scored seven points in three quick minutes as her teammates looked to feed her the ball and she didn’t let them down, going to work inside the paint.
The Alice Kunek effect
Again, New Zealand stayed with the task despite Australia getting their offence ticking over. That was, until a 15-4 Opals run that was kickstarted by Alice Kunek changed the game.
First, Kunek’s disruptive defence led to her grabbing a steal and pushing the ball in transition, which was a rare sight in the first half, with players (Maley excluded) looking fatigued. That push led to Maley free throws, and the ferocity provided by Maley and Kunek resulted in an avalanche for Australia, including a pair of Kunek threes and a pair of Madgen layups.
The story of the tournament was perhaps Kunek’s play, who was duly rewarded with All-Star Five honours. She averaged 12 points and four rebounds per game, highlighted by efficient shooting; 45% from the field and 42% from deep. After being on the outer of the Opals program for a number of years, she showed Opals selectors what they’ve been missing out on.
Image credit: FIBA
Anneli Maley’s signature game
Having built an 18-point three quarter time lead, 63-45, Australia was all but home, but that didn’t stop Maley from wreaking absolute havoc. She was a woman possessed, showcasing that fire and determination we’ve become accustomed to seeing in the WNBL in recent years. She was getting steals, pushing the pace and scoring at will, even putting in a bit of showtime with a glorious spin move and finish in transition after stealing the ball on the other end.
Australia cruised home to an 81-59 win, led by Kunek (19 points, five rebounds, three steals and two assists) and Madgen (14 points, five assists, three rebounds and three steals), while Maley’s all-out effort saw her finish with a double-double of 11 points and 11 rebounds.
Although a gold medal is always the goal for the Opals, the squad assembled did their part in making sure business was looked after. Were there low points that pointed out some holes in the squad? Absolutely.
On the flip side, some of those questions were answered as the tournament progressed. Inserting Rocci (who led the Opals in assists with 4.2 per game) into the starting lineup against Korea was a gamechanger for the Opals, as they looked lost at times without a pure ball-handler out there to start games.
And it must be remembered that this Opals squad was missing 75% of its players that suited up in last year’s World Cup. The experience gained by the likes of Rocci, Shyla Heal, Lauren Scherf, Keely Froling and Chloe Bibby (who I thought deserved more playing time) was invaluable.
Going forward, the Opals program as a whole will be better off for this experience. When you add back in the likes of Ezi Magbegor —who was named a WNBA All-Star for the first time in her career yesterday— and Bec Allen, Sami Whitcomb, Cayla George, with a sprinkling of the squad we saw at this Asia Cup, you get a sense of the type of team the Opals will be rolling out on the hardwood in Paris, come 2024.
And if that doesn’t get you excited, nothing will!