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Opals secure a place in the 2016 Rio Olympics
Behind a game-high 22 points from veteran Laura Hodges, the Australian Opals accounted for the New Zealand Tall Ferns 80-63 in game 2 of the 2015 FIBA Oceania Championships and secure a place in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
The Opals were made to work hard for the win. Micaela Cocks wound back the clock with a red-hot shooting performance of her own to help keep the Tall Ferns in the game. However it was Australia's night, as the Opals clamped down in the third quarter to take command and not allow New Zealand back into the contest.
Laura Hodges was the star for the Opals
The first half was a grind, with the tone set in the first quarter where both teams struggled to score. Australia were made to scrap for the points, while the Tall Ferns were made to do the same. Two free throws by the home nation saw them draw level with Opals at 14-all at the first break.
Hodges and Cocks then went head to head, with both players demonstrating their class as they seemingly traded baskets. Hodges was able to garner more support from her teammates however, as Australia edged to a 7 point lead at half time (40-33).
A clearly determined Opals side returned to the court to start the third. Their defensive intensity was evidence as they forced New Zealand into tough shots and shot clock violations. Hodges continued her hot shooting, while fellow veteran Suzy Batkovic was also influential in finding the bottom of the next. The Opals pulled away further to open up a 11 point margin heading into the final period.
Australia was never seriously challenged in the final term despite more long bombs landed by Cocks. But Hodges was better. It was only fitting that she added the last 5 points of the game to secure a 17 point win and book the Opals' ticket to the Rio.
Hodges connected on 9/14 from the field with 5 rebounds while her rival Cocks landed 4/7 from long-range with 7 rebounds. Batkovic was impressive also, causing havoc offensively on her way to 15 points while Tessa Lavey had 8 points and 7 assists with 4 steals.
The Tall Ferns will have to fight their way through the Olympic qualification tournament in order to try to join the Opals.
With Rio now a reality, Opals head coach Brendan Joyce will now refocus on the bigger challenge ahead. While his team qualified for the Olympics, the Opals did so despite missing 7 players who missed this series due to WNBA commitments. Add the controversial omission of Liz Cambage and the potential swan song for Lauren Jackson and Penny Taylor, the Opals will be chasing a medal in 2016. It is one that they hope will be gold.
Watch the Australian men try to emulate the Opals on Tuesday, 18 August live online via FIBA's YouTube channel.
2015 FIBA Oceania Championships
Game 2: 17 August: Australian Opals defeated New Zealand Tall Ferns 80-63