Sapphires top Latvia in low-scoring affair to remain undefeated

In a low-scoring game that saw the teams combine to go 5 of 50 from beyond the arc, Australia’s Sapphires have emerged victorious over Latvia 60-41 in their second group game at the FIBA Under 17 Women’s World Cup.

The victory was set up by a 15-2 first quarter as stifling defense combined with some errant shot-making from the Latvians allowed the Australians to set up a buffer which they would not soon relinquish. Shyla Heal led the Australians with a double-double, whilst Alex Fowler finished with 11 points.

With a competitive game already under their belts, the Sapphires came out a lot more polished on offence in the opening minutes than they had against Angola, scoring on their first two possessions as Shyla Heal buried a step-back before Isabel Palmer drove baseline to hit a floater. However, at the other end the Sapphires committed three fouls inside the first two minutes, which combined with a pair of turnovers threatened to undo their early good work.

The Latvians were unable to add a basket for the first seven minutes of the contest, with the Australians opening up an 11-0 lead. Laura Meldere finally added her team’s first points off a put-back from close range, but with the Australian defensive pressure not relenting for a second, that proved to be Latvia’s only points of the first quarter. Latvia fell into the habit of making some unnecessarily risky passes, with Lily Scanlon picking up two of the Sapphires’ six first-quarter steals in her first minute on court, as despite shooting just 31% from the field, the Australians opened up a 15-2 lead after one quarter of play.

Lily Scanlon | Credit: FIBA

With the undersized Latvian team barely taking a look at the paint and their outside shooting proving unreliable, the Australians looked set to continue their domination into the second quarter. But a third foul on Agnes Emma-Nnopu, which forced the Sapphires forward to the bench early in the second quarter, appeared to change the flow of the game slightly.

The Sapphires’ scoring dried up, but to their credit the Australians, they maintained their defensive pressure to minimise Latvia’s chances. With the score still 17-5 nearly 4 minutes into the term, the Latvian coach decided a timeout was required if his team was going to make a charge. Their defensive intensity went up a notch out of the timeout, and after two scraps on the floor for a loose ball inside a minute, Australian coach Shannon Seebohm called a timeout of his own.

A pretty hesitation move from Heal opened up space and allowed the Sapphires’ point guard to get to the basket before the Perth Lynx signing found Alexandra Fowler rolling to the basket to see the Australian lead extended to 23-5 heading into the final three minutes of the first half. Latvia responded with a basket of their own, but Fowler hit back from close range to maintain the Australians’ 18-point advantage. With Latvia adding the final two baskets of the second quarter, the Australians went in at halftime with a 25-11 advantage -- a comfortable buffer given the low-scoring.

The first few shots of the second half failed to drop for the Sapphires, but Isobel Anstey came up with a put-back to get things started before Heal once again caught the Latvian defense napping with a sweet hesitation that allowed her to get to the basket and earn a chance at a three-point play. Whilst she was unable to convert the free throw, there was no doubt that the Sapphires started the second half the better of the two teams.

Scanlon converted her own and-one opportunity to see the lead extended to 36-13, and with Latvia falling to 0 of 15 from three-point range after missing their first four attempts from deep to start the second half, the Australians continued to build until a Latvian timeout midway through the quarter. Whilst the Australians also suffered shooting woes from deep, missing their first 12 from beyond the arc, their ability to get out in transition and also score from close range in their half-court sets allowed them to keep the score ticking over. Isabel Palmer was forced off court due to an apparent injury mid-way through the third quarter, but in a positive sign was able to walk off under her own power and made her way to the locker room unassisted.

Soon after, the Latvians were able to knock down the first three-pointer for either side after the teams combined to miss their first 30 attempts of the game. That basket started a brief flurry of Latvian points in what was a high-scoring quarter given the context of the game. Although the team in maroon added 14 points for the term, the Sapphires tallied 21 to extend their lead to 46-25 with a quarter to play.

A disjointed start to the fourth quarter was snapped just over a minute in by the Sapphires’ first three of the game courtesy of Heal, who broke a run of 15 consecutive misses from deep by the Australians and moved to 15 points in the process. However a couple of ill-advised passes from the Australians allowed Latvia to force turnovers and keep pace with the Sapphires in the early stages of the final term.

Georgia Amoore buried Australia’s second three of the quarter, while Heal completed a double-double by collecting her 10th rebound shortly after. But a scrappy middle portion of the quarter allowed Latvia to trim the margin, as some quick fouls saw the Sapphires’ opponents spend the last four minutes of the game in the bonus. With the game decided as a contest by this point, the brief spell mattered little to the final result, but it cannot have impressed the Australian coaching staff. The Sapphires conceded a 7-0 run before a deep two from Heal in the final minute added the team’s first points in almost five, to push the Sapphires back out to a 58-38 lead. With both teams in the bonus in the dying stages, some late free throws either way saw the game finish 60-41 to see the Sapphires set up a clash for top spot in the group with Canada, with the winner set to avoid tournament favourites USA and France until the semi-finals.

Shyla Heal led all scorers, tallying 17 points and 11 rebounds, with primary support coming in the form of 11 points from Alexandra Fowler and 9 points from Lily Scanlon. However, the stat that will stand out most is the 2 of 22 shooting from three-point range, a mark that the Australians will have to improve if they are to match it with the heavyweights in this tournament.

The Sapphires take on unbeaten Canada in their final group game, with the winner securing first after Latvia fell to Canada 65-51 in their opening group fixture. That game will be played at 11:00pm AEST on Tuesday night, streaming live on The Pick and Roll’s Facebook page.

Australia 60 (Heal 17p, 11r, 3a; Fowler 11p, 3r; Scanlon 9p, 3s) Latvia 41 (Mikelsone 8p, 3r; Klescova 7p, 10r; Meldere 6p, 9r)

Box Score

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2018 Under 17 World Cup Schedule (all times AEST)

22 July: Australia defeated Angola 81-43 23 July: Australia vs Latvia 60-41 24 July: Australia vs Canada @ 11:00pm (watch here) 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

All of the Sapphires games will be streamed LIVE on The Pick and Roll’s Facebook page.

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