Sapphires earn gold in dominant win over Italy

The Sapphires have finished the FIBA Under 17 World Championship for Women as gold medalists following a historic 62-38 victory over Italy to give Australia its first gold medal at the event.

The Australians were led by Monique Conti who finished with 18 points, with Ezi Magbegor and Jasmine Simmons also excellent as both finished in double figures to go alongside some excellent rebounding numbers.

With excellent defensive pressure as Rebecca Pizzey opened the game with an early block, neither team was able to pick up any points for the first 90 seconds as interior defense ruled at both ends of the floor. Eventually, it was Abby Cubillo who opened the scoring, but couldn’t finish the and-one.

The Sapphires moved out to an early 6-2 lead through Simmons and Magbegor, but the pressure of the event appeared to affect both offenses early as both sides struggled to do anything of note through the first five minutes of the game, yet a Conti three-pointer extend the Australian lead to 7. With the Italians hitting just 1 of their first 10 field goal attempts, three of four free throws in quick succession from Magbegor then put Australia out to an 12-2 advantage with 3 minutes to play in the first term.

Italy finally hit their second field goal of the game as Verona connected from beyond the arc, who then followed up with a baseline drive for a lay-up to cut the Sapphires’ advantage to 5. Nonetheless, the Australian's speed continued to trouble the Italians, with Conti then Jazmin Shelley earning trips to the free throw line after being fouled on drives, both splitting a pair with the Sapphires in the bonus. The Italians managed to hit the final basket of the quarter to see the Australian lead sit at 14-9 after 10 minutes of play with both sides shooting 4/15 for the first quarter.

Conti opened the scoring for the second quarter as a lane opened up when the defense broke down as Magbegor’s blocked shot - Cubaj’s fourth block for the game - found the Victorian guard on the perimeter. The Australians continued to draw fouls, with Italian stars Madera and Verona quickly finding themselves with two fouls.

This probably should have been the Sapphires’ cue to extend their lead even further, but turnovers cost the Australians and Italy reduced the lead to a solitary point before Kiera Rowe hit a badly needed three-pointer to push the Australians out to a 20-16 lead midway through the term. Shelley quickly followed up with a steal before being fouled on the lay-up, but missed both ensuing free throws. Shelley quickly made up for those missed free throws by drawing a charge on Ianezic as the Italian attempted to drive to the basket before Rowe split a pair of free throws.

Although the Italians got close, they turned the ball over a couple of times in quick succession with Simmons the benefactor, laying the ball in before yet another Italian turnover forced a timeout with 3:50 to play in the first half with the Sapphires leading 23-16.

Conti proved to be a weapon off the bench for the Sapphires yet again, scoring 10 points in the first half and proving to be a real nuisance for the Italians on defense. With two lay-ups on the break helping extend the lead to 27-16 with just under 2 minutes to play.

Italy missed their final eight field goal attempts of the first half and committed 7 turnovers in the same time frame as their comeback earlier in the quarter was quickly forgotten. Simmons split a pair of free throws in the final seconds after being fouled going up to see the Australians take a 31-16 lead into halftime, winning the quarter 17-7.

Although the Sapphires shot just 10/28, their defense restricted Italy to 7/29. The lead could have been much larger if not for some poor free throw shooting by Australia, who hit just 9/19 from the line. Conti played her role of impact player perfectly, leading all scorers with 11 points. Simmons played a solid captain’s knock in the first half, tallying 7 points and 8 rebounds.

The second half saw the Australians open the scoring after 90 scoreless seconds. Magbegor was fouled on a mid-range jumper and hit a pair of free throws to push the lead to 17. The Italians quickly hit back with a three-pointer from Pinzan but Magbegor was able to draw a fourth foul on Italian danger player Cubaj and hit another pair from the line to take her personal tally to 9 points, with 7 of those coming at the charity stripe.

Italy were able to hang with the Australians for the early parts of the third quarter, but the Australians were soon able to kick again as a brilliant inbound pass from Conti found Simmons in excellent position to lay the ball in for a 39-21 lead at the midway point of the quarter. Italy's shooting began to fail them yet again as they became almost solely reliant on the three-point shot, which they had not converted well all game. It was inevitable that a timeout would have to come from the Italian coach and eventually it came with 3:22 to play in the third term and the score 39-21 to the Australians.

A three-pointer for Verona was the first score of the game after the timeout, but Miela Goodchild, who hadn’t seen many minutes, responded with a corner three of her own to restore the 18 point margin. The teams traded scores for the last couple of minutes of the term and with 10 minutes to play, the Sapphires led 47-27 and had one hand firmly on the gold medal.

Verona’s three-point prayers continued to be answered on Italy’s opening possession of the final term, but Conti responded with one of her own to maintain the 20 point advantage through the early parts of the last quarter.

That pair of three-pointers were the only field goals for the first three minutes of the final term, but that mattered little to the Australians as their defense stifled the Italians completely and extinguished any chance of a late comeback. When more points did finally come, it was Conti notching up her 18th point of the game on a steal and fast break lay-up. It was something that Australia’s opponents in this tournament will be having nightmares about for weeks to come, and it extended Australia’s lead to 52-31.

If there was an assist of the game award, it surely would have come on Australia’s next basket. Shelley fired an absolute laser of a pass straight through the Italian defense to Simmons next to the basket for the easy lay-up. Shelley then finally hit her first field goal of the game, a three-pointer from the right wing, but her ability to set up teammates more than compensated for her lack of scoring in the final.

Coach Shannon Seebohm was able to give all 12 of his players a run as time ticked down in the final quarter as the entire Sapphires team was able to soak up the experience of playing in a World Championship final, with Cassidy McLean managing a basket late on in her limited minutes.

The Italians dribbled out their final possession as the Australians began to celebrate a brilliant 62-38 victory in an exceptional final performance to give Australia its first World Championship title at Under 17 level.

Conti was sublime off the bench for the Sapphires, notching 18 points on 6/11 shooting, while Magbegor and Simmons had excellent all-round performances. Magbegor finished with 13 points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocks, whilst Simmons tallied a double-double, finishing with 14 points and 12 rebounds.

It would be hard to find fault with any of the Australian players though - not only in this final, but throughout the tournament. The Sapphires were excellent, with a small period against France in the group stage the only thing with which you could really find fault. It may be a cliché, but you can’t deny that defense won this championship. The Italians averaged 66 points per game coming into the final, but scored just 38 points on 14/53 shooting as the Sapphires forced 23 turnovers, many of which ended in fast break points for the likes of Conti and Simmons.

Australia went near enough to scooping the pool in the awards, too. Conti, Simmons and Magbegor were named to the tournament All-Star 5, with Magbegor named MVP.

Magbegor averaged 12.5 points, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks per game, shining as the undoubted star of the tournament. Simmons was excellent as team captain, tallying an average of 11 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game, while Conti was electric off the bench, finishing the tournament with 10.3 points, 3 assists, and 1.7 steals in just 19 minutes per game as she played her role to perfection.

This was a true team effort by the Sapphires. From Sam Simons’ 16 point performance against China to Shelley’s 23 point demolition of the United States, every player went above and beyond when required. The coaching staff of Shannon Seebohm, Mark Wrobel, and Tracy York can only be commended for the work they did in helping instill confidence in this team, and it paid dividends in the most satisfying and historic way possible.

Australia 62 (Conti 18p, 6r; Simmons 14p, 12r; Magbegor 13p, 9r, 3b) Italy 38 (Verona 13p, 4r; Trucco 7p, 6r)

Box Score