Sapphires strong finish secures victory over Italy

The Sapphires ensured that there would be no revenge from Italy for the 2016 gold medal game, dominating the final term of an otherwise hotly contested encounter to secure a 64-46 victory and earn a place in the FIBA Under 17 Women’s World Cup semi-finals where they will play fellow tournament heavyweights France.

Shyla Heal continued to lead the way for the Australians, adding 19 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists as Australia edged to within reach of defending their 2016 World Cup title.

Shyla Heal | Credit FIBA

Italy came out playing their trademark hard-nosed defence, but the Sapphires more than matched them in the opening minutes to start the game on a 10-0 run. Isabel Palmer chalked up an early tough basket followed by an assist on Isobel Anstey’s close-range finish. After Shyla Heal’s step-back for a deep two, the Italian coach put a stop to the Sapphires charge with a timeout after just three minutes of play as Sapphires threatened to run away with things early. However the timeout hardly dissuaded the Australians, as after a decent look at a three from Italy bounced away, Palmer found her way to the cup to further extend the Australian lead.

The Italians finally got on the board just after the five-minute mark with a contested finish from close range, before Catarina Gilli added another pair at the free throw line as the Australian side struggled to score in the back end of the opening term. But an Italian three that briefly cut the margin to 12-7 was immediately followed by a shot from the corner from Heal as the Sapphires maintained their substantial margin throughout the opening term. A buzzer-beater to end the first quarter put the Italians within seven, but the Sapphires held their opponents to 33% shooting in the opening term to take a 21-14 lead after ten minutes of play.

A silky start to the second quarter from the Sapphires saw Eliza Hollingsworth feed Alex Fowler in close proximity to the basket before finding her own way to the hole to push the lead into double figures once again. A second three of the game from Heal followed, but a rare defensive breakdown from the Sapphires allowed Martina Spinelli an acre of space to finish a point-blank look to set Italy on their way in the second term. A couple of offensive fouls threatened to halt the Australians’ momentum. Ilaria Panzera made them pay with a pair of threes, cutting the lead to 28-22 as it became Shannon Seebohm’s turn to call a halt to proceedings to talk things over with his charges midway through the second term.

A relatively disjointed second quarter from the Sapphires continued after the timeout, with a turnover from Lily Scanlon and an unsportsmanlike foul from Anstey as she tried to clear space, handing Italy four free throws in quick time. Fortunately for the Australians, the Italians only connected on two, but it would be another minute or so before the Sapphires responded as Agnes Emma-Nnopu earned a trip to the line and connecting on both free throw attempts. That sequence lit a spark under the Sapphires, as Anstey finished from close range before Palmer blew by her defender to earn a trip to the charity stripe, duly converting both attempts. That accurate free-throw shooting helped ensure that the Australians took a 34-28 lead into halftime, having knocked down all 10 of their attempts whereas Italy could only connect on 8 of 15 from the line.

Agnes Emma-Nnopu came out of the halftime break in blistering form, drawing an early offensive foul before adding the first four points of the second half for the Sapphires. A block from Emma-Nnopu followed, and with the Australians putting their opponents under all sorts of pressure in the early stages, only some less than efficient finishing from the Australians prevented the lead from being significantly extended in the opening minutes of the second half. With the Italians able to add just three points in the first five minutes of the third quarter, the Australian lead hovered at 39-31 until Panzera found her way to the basket to cut the margin back to six.

Isabel Palmer found Emma-Nnopu under the basket after dribbling through the entire Italian side. With the Australian front court continuing to make life tough in the paint for their opponents, the Sapphires capitalised on the stops they were able to force to extend the lead to 11 as turnovers became a theme of the third quarter for the Italians. However, a couple of late baskets from Italy tightened things up heading into the final term as the Sapphires’ lead was cut to 44-37 with a quarter to play. A combination of stellar defence and some lacklustre finishing from both sides culminated in the third quarter reaping a total of just 19 points.

Gemma Potter converted a pair at the line to continue the Australia’s solid afternoon of free throw shooting, taking the team’s tally to 14 of 16. But some sloppy offence shortly after allowed the Italians a basket on the break. Another almost identical play just seconds later cut the margin to 46-41 and forced the Sapphires into an early timeout. A shot clock violation out of the timeout gave the Italians the opportunity to cut the margin to a single possession, but Panzera’s driving lay-up was a little too strong and the Australians maintained their buffer, which was then extended as Heal was fouled going to the basket and sank a pair of free throws.

Heal proved unstoppable for a period during the final quarter. The guard was driving to the basket and finishing some tough lay-up opportunities in traffic to give the Sapphires some breathing room as Italy called a timeout with just under five minutes to play. But when Heal found Emma-Nnopu with a scything pass from the top of the arc for the first points after the stoppage, the Australian lead had reached 14 and they were carrying all the momentum.

Scanlon buried a three to take the score to 61-44 before Heal split a pair at the line, and with two minutes to play the result was well and truly decided. With a late Scanlon basket rounding out a 64-46 victory for the Australians, a margin that was far more comfortable than the first three quarters of play had foretold.

The win set up a semi-final against France, with that game set to be played at 1:00am AEST on Sunday morning.

Shyla Heal led all scorers with 19 points on 7 of 13 shooting, also finishing with 7 rebounds and 3 assists, whilst Agnes Emma-Nnopu completed a double-double of 11 points and 11 rebounds. Lily Scanlon added 9 points, whilst Alex Fowler was solid at both ends to tally 6 points and 7 rebounds.

Australia 64 (Heal 19p, 7r, 3a; Emma-Nnopu 11p, 11r; Scanlon 9p, 3r) Italy 46 (Panzera 14p, 6r, 7a; Gilli 10p, 6r; Rossini 6p)

Box Score

2018 Under 17 World Cup Schedule (all times AEST)

22 July: Australia defeated Angola 81-43 23 July: Australia defeated Latvia 60-41 24 July: Australia defeated Canada 64-48 25 July: Round of 16: Australia defeated New Zealand 77-37 27 July: Quarter-Finals: Australia defeated Italy 64-46 28 July: Semi-Finals: Australia vs France @ 1:00am AEST 29 July: Medal Games

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