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Opals punish shorthanded Korea, but many questions remain
With few standout players outside the big names, has anyone done enough to secure their spot at the World Cup?
Whilst the Opals and Korea could not be considered major rivals, the two teams do have recent history, having played in the third-place playoff at the two most recent FIBA Asia Cups. On both occasions, the Opals finished victors by a margin of 30 or more points. However, given Korea’s form in Belgrade that saw them wrap up World Cup qualification prior to this contest, this game looked as though it could be far closer than those two match-ups.
That was until the Koreans trotted out a starting lineup that did not feature Las Vegas Aces centre Park Ji-Su, who had posted a triple-double that included 11 blocks in their crucial win over Brazil. With their next tallest player standing at 6’1, the Opals frontcourt no doubt sensed an opportunity for a day out, with Cayla George and newly inserted starter Darcee Garbin taking full advantage.
One of the Opals’ first offensive possessions of the game illustrated their advantage around the rim as George plucked two offensive rebounds from her own misses with absolute ease to finish at the third attempt. Misses from close to the basket became almost inconsequential to the score at times in the first half as the Opals routinely grabbed the rebound and created second chances for themselves. Meanwhile, at the other end, the paint was just about made of lava as Korea sought to do their scoring from the perimeter. Yet, with the Opals’ continuing to exhibit the defensive intensity that had served them so well in the two games prior, the Koreans hit just one of six from three-point range in the first quarter. With no interior option to speak of and dribble penetration providing little success, it was little wonder that the Opals built their lead at a rate of knots throughout the early stages.
The dominant start allowed Sandy Brondello to become a little more flexible with her rotations, with all 12 players getting onto the court inside the first 15 minutes. In particular, Kristy Wallace took full advantage of her early minutes after being nailed to the pine in the loss to Serbia. Four assists in as many minutes to open the second quarter demonstrated the former Baylor star’s passing ability and vision as the Opals refused to take the foot off the pedal. Swarming Korean defence on any player catching the ball near the basket only opened up opportunities for players on the perimeter, as evidenced by George, Garbin, and Marianna Tolo combining for 10 assists for the game. Holding a 51-20 lead at halftime and a 33-12 rebounding advantage, the Opals had taken full advantage of the opportunity presented by Park’s absence. With 18 assists on 21 made baskets, the offence was humming and the Opals looked set to continue to cruise after the interval.
However, the second half saw the tide turn in Korea’s favour. Down by 31, just gaining respectability in the final score would take some major changes as well as a significant improvement in perimeter shooting. The Koreans would start to use their speed to get into the paint for a couple of layups, which in turn created some slightly more open looks from the perimeter. When Korea started taking the right threes instead of all the threes, they started to hit them with far more regularity, forcing a timeout from Brondello.
Despite the stoppage, Korea continued their solid start to the second half. The Opals were also hampered by the temporary loss of Talbot, who appeared to tweak an ankle during a collision with a Korean defender as she gathered in a long pass. Fortunately, to the relief of both the Opals and the fans who had put in the graveyard shift to watch the game, the Adelaide Lightning star would return to the court later in the piece.
A 21-14 third quarter in the Koreans’ favour narrowed the gap, but the Opals continued to employ the second unit in the opening stages of the final term with the Australians’ lead still well in excess of 20 points. It didn’t take long for Allen and Talbot to be injected back into the lineup, and the Opals actually played the final six minutes with their starting lineup on the floor, which is certainly not something to be expected from a team that led by 31 at halftime, and against an opponent resting their only true interior presence and best player. But with Korea employing a zone and the Opals struggling at times to break down the defence, Brondello clearly felt that the best chance of success was to go back to the starters, particularly as Korea edged back within 15 midways through the final term.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom for the players coming off the bench, though. Maddison Rocci had a blistering start after coming on during the first quarter to post three quick assists and maintain the Opals’ energy at the offensive end. Meanwhile, Wallace finished with five assists and zero turnovers alongside her three points and four rebounds whilst also providing her trademark hard-nosed defence in her 12 minutes on court, staking her claim for a World Cup roster spot. Similarly, Garbin took full advantage of her spot in the starting lineup, posting 11 points, 9 rebounds and 3 assists as she looks to edge her way up the pecking order. It is worth remembering that this Opals roster still has Ezi Magbegor to return, who is a lock to take up one spot, which only causes further congestion in the fight for positions in the team for Sydney.
Although Korea did trim the margin to 15 at one point, the Opals held firm for a 79-61 win to finish their week in Belgrade with a 2-1 record. Intriguingly, given Korea’s abject start to the game, they actually finished the game with better three-point numbers than the Opals, shooting 9-26 to Australia’s 8-27. A rebound count of 57-26 rendered almost all other stats moot in the context of this single game, but losing the turnover count 19-13 will irk Brondello in terms of long-term progress. Particularly annoying will be the number of those turnovers that came from offensive fouls on moving screens. Perhaps a couple of these calls were questionable, and had no tangible impact on this result, but throwing away a few possessions could make a massive difference in a closer game, and better teams will take advantage of those opportunities. Fortunately, that is an easier issue to work on than most others.
Not only did the Opals finish the day with a win, Sami Whitcomb earned a spot in the All-Star Five for the tournament. The Opals captain was instrumental throughout, leading by her actions and posting 13.7 points, 4.3 assists, and 2.3 rebounds per contest, shooting 55.6% from the field in the process. After years of having her chances to play for her adopted homeland limited by a combination of Leilani Mitchell and FIBA’s naturalised player rule, Whitcomb now looks set to lead the Opals’ charge at a home World Cup.
In the end, whilst a 2-1 record is a decent enough outcome for the Opals, there may have been as many questions posed as answered with regards to the final makeup of the World Cup squad. Players on the fringe of the roster will be absolutely belting down the door during the remainder of the WNBL season, and with precious few of the newer players in the squad staking a real claim at a spot, there are definitely still a number of spots yet to be locked in. However, with the WNBL season being shortened to 16 games, time is running out to make a late run at a World Cup spot.
Let the speculation begin.