With under 2 weeks before the 2018 FIBA World Cup for Women tips off in Tenerife, Spain, the Australian Opals' preparations met some resistance in the form of world number three ranked France.
Tackling home side France for an exhibition game in Paris, the Opals took to the court minus star centre Liz Cambage, who has yet to join the team in Europe following the conclusion of her playoff campaign with the Dallas Wings in the WNBA. Despite a final quarter surge, the Opals could not overcome a horror 15-32 opening term to fall short 77-85 [highlights].
Bec Allen was the star for the Opals, pouring in a game-high 23 points with 8 rebounds, connecting on 3-of-6 from beyond the three-point arc. Cayla George was also impressive in providing 18 points, however the Opals could not overturn a 25 point final term deficit.
The Opals starting five were George, Allen, Alanna Smith, Jenn O'Hea and Kate Ebzery, with Allen draining a triple to open their account. In fact, Allen and George combined for Australia;s first 10 points. Leading by 3, the French put some distance between them and the Australians courtesy of a 11-0 run before Steph Talbot tried to restore some order by scoring on a lay-up. When she followed up with a trey not long after, the Opals were down by 14 points. And while Talbot would dial long distance again late in the term, France hit one of their own on the buzzer, to open up a commanding 17 point buffer at the end of the first term.
It rained three's early in the second period, with both Allen and George's ability to stretch the defense book-ending a triple to Alexia Chartereau. Despite O'Hea also draining one from long-range, France continued to score at will as they opened up a 23 point lead. Back-to-back buckets by Lauren Mansfield to close out the half saw the Opals narrow the margin back to 19, but with plenty of work ahead of them in the second half.
As they had done all game, it was again Allen and George combining to prevent the French from blowing out the game. The Australian's threatened to get back into the game late in the term, closing the margin to 15 via an Alex Bunton put-back followed by a pair of free throws made by Mansfield. Yet France responded by scoring the next four points to remain in control and leading by 19 at the final break.
France scored the first 6 points on the final term to push the margin to 25, but the Opals never gave up and launched one final assault. O'Hea ignited a 13-0 run by hitting from beyond the arc. While France's Endy Miyem halted the run with a basket, Allen maintained the Opals momentum by scoring again with just under 2 minutes to play to get the Aussies to within 11. George would respond to a French score by connecting on another three, with Talbot's free throws closing the margin to just 7, albeit with 21 seconds left in the game. The run was all too late for the Opals however, with the home side holding on to win by 9.
While Allen and George were influential for the Opals, Talbot came off the bench to add 11 points, with Mansfield chipping in with 10. For France, they were paced by their captain, with Miyem compiling 19 points, while Marine Johannes added 14 points.
Both sides shot well from inside and outside the arc, and it was the slow start from the Opals that cost them any chance of victory in the exhibition game. However it was an ideal game in preparation for the World Cup, providing much-needed game-time for the new-look Opals. The addition of Cambage is sure to provide an imposing presence for the Opals, and assimilating her into the team ethos will be of utmost importance if the Australians are to have any chance of challenging for a medal.
The Opals are ranked number 4 in the world behind the USA, France and Spain, and will be joined in Group B alongside Turkey (7th), Argentina (15th) and Nigeria (34th) at the World Cup that commences on 22 September. Turkey loom as the biggest threat to Australia topping their group, and will be desperate to atone for the 30-point hiding they received from the Opals in the 2014 bronze medal game.
Australia tip-off their campaign against Nigeria, before taking on Argentina and Turkey, with every game broadcast live on Fox Sports Australia.
Australian Opals for 2018 FIBA World Cup
Rebecca ALLEN / New York Liberty Alexandra BUNTON / Sydney Uni Flames Elizabeth CAMBAGE / Dallas Wings Katie-Rae EBZERY / Perth Lynx Cayla GEORGE / Dallas Wings Tess MADGEN / Townsville Fire Ezi MAGBEGOR / Melbourne Boomers Lauren MANSFIELD / Perth Lynx Leilani MITCHELL / Phoenix Mercury Jenna O’HEA / Melbourne Boomers Alanna SMITH / Stanford University Stephanie TALBOT / Phoenix Mercury
Opals World Cup Schedule (all times AEST)
22-Sep: vs Nigeria @ 10:30pm 23-Sep: vs Argentina @ 8:00pm 25-Sep: vs Turkey @ 10:30pm 26-Sep: Quarter-Final Qualifications 28-Sep: Quarter-Finals 29-Sep: Semi-Finals 30-Sep: Finals