The next-generation of Sapphires have demonstrated that they can be a force to be reckoned with after coming from behind to topple Japan 61-60 to claim the 2017 FIBA U16 Asia Championship title in a thriller, securing the opportunity to defend Australia's 2016 FIBA U17 World Championship title.
Japan who opened the contest strongly behind a 26-18 first term, led by as many as 13 points. However Australia stormed home in the second half behind a stellar defensive display, outscoring Japan 29-19 after the main break to steal a thrilling 1 point victory.
Isabel Palmer led three Sapphires in scoring in double figures, adding 14 points on 6-of-10 shooting with 6 rebounds and 4 assists. Agnes Emma-Nnopu stepped up with a big double-double of 10 points and 10 rebounds with 3 blocked shots, while Georgia Moore also chipped in with 10 points, while team Captain Shyla Heal contributed 9 points and 6 rebounds in the win.
Head coach Shannon Seebohm, the architect behind the Sapphires 2016 FIBA U17 World Championship win, managed to get his side to dig deep in the second half to stymie the hot-shooting by Japan to grind out the win. Australia's superior size and intensity saw them out-rebound Japan 57-37, with Emma-Nnopu and Alexandra Fowler combining for 20 rebounds. Their interior dominance that also included 6 blocked shots, offset Australia's 13 turnovers.
The best two sides met in the tournament final, with both Australia and Japan rarely troubled in the lead up. The Sapphires opened the tournament with a 60-43 victory of Trans-Tasman rivals New Zealand before thrashing Chinese (88-60) and South Korea (83-50) to finish atop of Group A. They then dismantled Hong Kong 120-23 in the quarterfinals, and trounced China 86-46 in their semifinal to set up the clash with Japan.
In a balanced team effort, Heal led the team in scoring with 11.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 2.2 steals per game. She was once of three players to average double figures in scoring, receiving great support from Emma-Nnopu who contributed 11.5 points and a team-best 8.5 rebounds and 1 block across their 6 games, along with Georgia Amoore's 11.2 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.2 steals per game.
With their win, Australia will look to defend their FIBA U17 Women's Basketball World Cup in 2018 in Minsk, Belarus.