A potential 2016 gold medal game rematch against Italy awaits the Sapphires in the quarter-final of the 2018 FIBA Under-17 Women’s World Cup, but the defending champions will first have to navigate a potentially tricky group featuring the ever-improving Canada and a Latvian team that ran the Italians within six points in the bronze medal playoff at last year’s European Under 16 Championships.
The 2018 edition of the tournament has the Sapphires pegged as one of a number of teams tipped to make a deep run in Belarus. Nine players were members of Australia’s triumphant FIBA Asia Under-16 team in 2017, and with a majority of the team also part of the Centre of Excellence program, many of the players have been training and playing together for the best part of 12 months. While many teams will bring vastly similar squads to those that qualified for the tournament, that additional time together could prove to be an ace up the sleeve for coach Shannon Seebohm and his charges.
The Australian outfit possesses a number of scoring options, with four players – Georgia Amoore, Agnes Emma-Nnopu, Shyla Heal, and Isabel Palmer – averaging in double digits in the FIBA Asia tournament, whilst Emma-Nnopu also averaged 8.5 rebounds per contest. At 182cm, Emma-Nnopu may be slightly undersized on the world stage but certainly has the attributes required to contend, and with Eliza Hollingsworth, Ashlee Hannan, and Isobel Anstey all standing 189cm or taller, there is plenty of height for Seebohm to call on. Recent Perth Lynx signing Heal is set to lead the team from the point guard spot after leading the team in scoring with 13.2 points per game and adding a solid 5.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists in the Sapphires’ 2017 Asian triumph.
In a group also featuring African runners-up Angola and European fourth-placed side Latvia, the Sapphires’ main competition in the group stage is expected to be Canada, who reached the final of the FIBA Americas Under 16 competition but were comprehensively beaten 91-46 by the dominant United States outfit. The Canadians will be led by 6’1 forward Brynn Masikewich, who finished that tournament with 12 points and 10.2 rebounds per game to lead the team in both categories. However, the supremely athletic Laeticia Amihere, who played in the 2016 tournament and at last year’s FIBA Under 19 World Cup, will not suit up for Canada after suffering a torn ACL in October of last year. Slthough the Canadians have had plenty of time to adjust, losing a player of Amihere's quality would make a difference to any team.
As always, the US will be among the teams to beat, with the 2018 team being led by Notre Dame commit and #1 player of the 2019 signing class, Samantha Brunelle. Brunelle is the only player to return from the team that lost to Australia in the 2016 semi-finals, but the team contains seven top 10 recruits across the 2019 and 2020 classes. It certainly looks as though the Americans have done a better job of assembling the best talent possible than they did in 2016, and recently defeated Sapphires’ group stage opponent Latvia 103-38 in a pre-tournament warm-up game.
France are also expected to be among the favourites after winning last year’s Under 16 European Championship with an unblemished record. With towering centre Iliana Rupert named MVP of that tournament, it is shooting guard Zoe Wadoux who is considered the star of the team, particularly after leading France to glory in the prestigious Reze International Tournament last month. Yet there will be a number of teams gunning for medals, and as Japan proved at the Asian Under 16 tournament last year by running the Australians within one point of a massive upset, there is no shortage of teams that can cause a boil-over on any given day.
The Sapphires may not be the hot favourites that they were in 2016, yet they will still be among the teams to beat. There is no doubt that the coaching staff of Seebohm, Mark Wrobel, and Melissa Downer will have every base covered, especially considering the perfectly executed scout of Italy prior to the gold medal match in 2016.
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2018 Under 17 World Cup Schedule (all times AEST)
22 July: Australia vs Angola @ 3:00am 23 July: Australia vs Latvia @ 12:45am 24 July: Australia vs Canada @ 11:00pm 25 July: Round of 16 Finals 27 July: Quarter-Finals/Classification Games 28 July: Semi-Finals/Classification Games 29 July: Gold Medal Game/Classification Games
Georgia Amoore (Victoria) Isobel Anstey (Victoria) Agnes Emma-Nnopu (Victoria) Alexandra Fowler (Queensland) Ashlee Hannan (Queensland) Shyla Heal (New South Wales) Eliza Hollingsworth (Victoria) Jade Melbourne (Victoria) Isabel Palmer (New South Wales) Ruby Porter (South Australia) Gemma Potter (Victoria) Lily Scanlon (Victoria)
Head Coach: Shannon Seebohm Assistant Coaches: Mark Wrobel, Melissa Downer