Despite missing captain Jenna O’Hea due to injury, the Opals have withstood a test from a pesky Nigerian side that kept pace with the Australians for large parts of the game to start their World Cup campaign on a winning note with an 86-68 victory.
Liz Cambage led the way for the Australians with a monster 34-point, 12-rebound performance that also featured four blocks.
With a starting lineup featuring Katie Ebzery, Steph Talbot, and Bec Allen alongside the frontcourt pairing of Cayla George and Liz Cambage, the Opals certainly came out with plenty of length and Allen opened the scoring courtesy of a friendly roll on a midrange jumper.
It quickly became apparent that the Opals’ plan in the halfcourt would be to find Cambage in good positions near the basket, but pushing the pace off some Nigerian misses in the early stages paid dividends. Some pinpoint passing found first Cambage and then George wide open under the basket on the way to an early 12-4 lead.
Nigeria responded with a deep three from Ezinne Kalu in the face of some heavy pressure from Talbot, but the Opals retained a slender margin as Sami Whitcomb and Alex Bunton checked in to see their first tournament minutes with the Opals.
With the Australian second unit on the court, the Nigerians pushed the pace a little more and it paid dividends as a quick run saw the African champions tie the game at 16-16, forcing Cambage to make a quick return to the game and the Opals star immediately added two points from close range.
Whitcomb followed up shortly after with a lay-up on the break, and when Cambage picked off a pass and went coast-to-coast, the Opals had taken a 24-17 lead that perhaps belied the closeness of the contest given Nigeria’s dominance on the offensive glass, with eight of their 13 first-quarter rebounds coming at that end of the court.
A brilliant turn-around jumper from Tess Madgen beat the shot clock as well as 23 seconds of world-class Nigerian defence to open the second quarter, and with Cambage continuing to dominate inside, the Australian lead hit double-digits for the first time early in the term.
Ezi Magbegor saw her first minutes of the tournament midway through the second quarter as all eleven available players took to the court inside the first 15 minutes of the game, with seven of those putting points on the board.
Despite the shared scoring, the Opals were unable to extend their lead much beyond the 10-point mark at any stage as Nigeria managed to keep pace with Australia. They were finding ways to get points inside despite the obvious size differential in the frontcourt, eventually cutting the Australian lead to eight points before Cambage was sent to the line after an obvious shooting foul in the lane and duly converted both free throws.
A late offensive foul on Cambage prevented the Opals from scoring to round out the quarter, but kept Nigeria from scoring in the final seconds to take a 42-31 lead, with Cambage leading the way with 20 points and proving chiefly responsible for the team’s 74% shooting from 2-point range.
A deep two from Talbot on the break off a dish from Ebzery opened the second half, but another three from Kalu punished the Opals for giving up yet another offensive rebound. Cambage continued to wreak havoc not only by scoring, but also by drawing a third foul on Nigerian star Evelyn Akhator, not that it appeared to worry the former #3 WNBA draft pick who swatted away the very next shot with gusto as she led her side on both ends of the court.
Kalu continued to be a thorn in the side for the Opals, picking Ebzery’s pocket and going coast-to-coast for the lay-up as the Opals’ lead dwindled to eight. A pair of trademark Whitcomb threes came a couple of minutes later to ensure the Australians remained at arms’ length, 59-47.
However, Nigeria’s response to that three was swift and culminated in the Australian lead being cut to seven, forcing Opals coach Sandy Brondello into a timeout late in the term. Fortunately for the Opals, they were able to slow Nigeria’s offence following the timeout, allowing just two more points in the final three minutes of the term, extending the margin to 63-54 heading into the final quarter.
Five points in the opening minute of the fourth term from Cambage took the Opals centre past the 30-point mark, and although Nigeria had their chances early in the quarter, some less than accurate shooting both from close-range and at the line cost them a real chance to get back into the game with still several minutes remaining before George latched onto a long-range Cambage pass to finish at the basket.
Finally, in the final five minutes the Opals were able to put some real distance between themselves and their opponents at 75-58 with five minutes to play, and Cambage was given some valuable late-game rest as Magbegor returned to the floor.
Alanna Smith also returned to the court late in the piece in a good sign after the Stanford University forward was seen having her nose tended to after taking a knock earlier in the game. With the second unit performing solid close-out duty, a last second Magbegor turnaround from close range saw the final score read 86-68 as the Opals got their campaign off to a winning start.
Liz Cambage was dominant throughout to finish with 34 points, 12 rebounds, and four blocks. Bec Allen added nine points, whilst Sami Whitcomb, Tess Madgen and Ezi Magbegor tallied eight apiece. The Australians’ outstanding ball movement was on show throughout, finishing with 25 assists on 33 field goals, with Steph Talbot and Cayla George adding six apiece.
The Australians take on Argentina in their second game of the tournament at 8pm on Sunday (AEST), with a win ensuring their passage through to the knockout rounds. As with all Opals World Cup games, this contest will be shown live on Fox Sports.
Australia 86 (Cambage 34p, 12r, 4b; Allen 9p, 5r, 3a; Madgen 8p, 3r) Nigeria 68 (Akhator 21p, 5r; Kalu 15p; 3r, 3s; Mohammed 8p, 5r)