The Australian women's basketball team has seen many highs throughout its illustrious history. The Opals squad routinely ranks among the world's best, with legendary players from Lorraine Eiler to Liz Cambage, and everyone in between.
Among them, the 2006 Opals that took the FIBA World Championships by storm may be the greatest of them all. They've certainly got the roster — and more importantly, the hardware — to prove it.
Led by 2020 WNBA Hall of Famer Lauren Jackson and Penny Taylor, the eventual tournament MVP, they were the immaculate picture of efficiency and professionalism. The Aussies systematically disassembled their overmatched opponents in the early stages and seemed destined for glory, however their path to the podium was hardly linear.
"Leading up to the tournament, Comm Games in Melbourne was a good little preparation," Belinda Snell told the Pick and Roll. "And also had some games in Australia as well.
"But then after that, the team pretty much separated and I think there was maybe five, six of us that went to the WNBA that year, so from April pretty much to pre-Worlds we didn’t really see each other with (half) of our team in the WNBA.
"I remember some practice games at Duke University as well against the US, also, so we had a little bit of preparation time pre-Worlds. We had a couple of weeks together; a few of the girls went to Europe before going to America, and then down to Sao Paulo."
"We had six rookies that year," said Kristi Harrower, whose strong performance was besieged with sickness and injuries. "They’d been with the Australian team in camps and things like that, but they hadn’t been to a major tournament before."
On paper, the Opals certainly had enough star power to hang with anyone, but their rivals loomed large, headlined by host nation Brazil and the reigning Olympic champions, USA.
"The European teams — Russia, Spain, France," Snell reeled off a few threats. "And of course Brazil on their home soil, they were tough and always going to be challenging over there."
"We know what the Brazilians are like, they’re a lot like European crowds, they get vocal, they love their sport, they get behind it," Harrower added.
"USA are always the team that you’ve got to beat, and then Russia was always a powerhouse back in my time. The top four was usually Brazil, Russia, USA and us."
In an odd turn of events, the Opals would win their first match without breaking a sweat, as their scheduled opponents, Lithuania, were forced to forfeit. A flight cancellation had rerouted the team through Guyana, stalling their arrival in Sao Paulo due to vaccination requirements.
A win is a win, but the Aussie girls desperately needed time to gel.
"We decided to play a green and gold scrimmage at the time that we were meant to play (Lithuania)," Harrower recalled. "There were still fans there, our families were there, so the coaches picked two teams, and we went and played a normal game, but against each other."
Clearly, the effort paid off, as the next few matches displayed the squad's fearsome potential. Decisive victories over Senegal (95-55) and Canada (97-65) saw the Opals sweep the preliminary round without relinquishing a lead throughout a single quarter.
The next stage wouldn't be quite so automatic, however, with marquee matches against Spain and Brazil in the cards. Three-time WNBA champion Amaya Valdemoro was an absolute menace for the Spaniards, and would end up averaging 21.2 points throughout the tournament on almost 50% shooting.
"The Spanish — they were never sort of really in the top four, but they were always just there," Harrower described. "They were that roundabout team. They just couldn’t get over that next hurdle, because maybe they faced us, or maybe they faced Russia, or they faced USA."
The Opals stifled the Spanish offence by winning the possession battle, taking 31 rebounds to Spain's 19, and walked away with a 72-68 victory. It was the first true test they would face, and Brazil would follow the next night.
The home squad had a number of weapons on their roster, with three players — Iziane Castro, Alessandra Oliveira and Janeth Dos Santos Arcain — averaging more than 13 points by the tournament's end.
The opening quarter was the first one Australia left without a lead, but they quickly righted the ship behind another strong performance from Penny Taylor (27 points, 7 rebounds) and Lauren Jackson (21 points, 13 rebounds), taking the match, 73-82.
After smothering Argentina, 83-49, the Opals were 6-0 and heading into the knockout stage with a full head of steam.
"We were never arrogant, but we were always confident within our group that we were good enough to achieve anything," said Harrower. "If we had dropped a game in any of those round robin games, I think that was quite disappointing for us.
"I’d gone through my whole Opals program, for twenty years, I’d been to four World Championships, four Olympics, and only one time we never medaled. That was in 2010, and it was really unfamiliar territory for us, because we’d never been there before.
"So when we always went into a major tournament, we always believed, never in an arrogant way, but in a confident way, that we were good enough to make the gold medal round. We felt if we could get past Brazil in the semis, being on their home court, that anything was possible after that."
"It was just going about our business," Snell summated.
The first step would be against France, who had flown under the radar for much of the tourney. Like Brazil, they had a balanced attack, featuring four players who averaged over 10 points per game, but were entering the knockout round 3-3, coming off a narrow loss against China and a 76-41 drumming at the hands of the Americans.
It was business as usual for the Opals, handling France wire-to-wire to advance, 79-66.
The real challenge was about to begin in the semifinals; a rematch against Brazil that had the makings of a devastating upset. After three quarters, Australia trailed by 7 points.
"We were down going into the fourth quarter, and we just pulled together as a group," said Harrower. "I think the Opals way was always trying to wear teams down over 40 minutes. That was important for us."
"I remember trailing them on their home soil," said Snell. "The last quarter we kind of came together and were able to block out the crowd and the noise of 11,000 fans — mostly Brazilian fans — and our maybe 20 Australian fans.
We actually went on a huge run in the last quarter and were able to overcome them, that was a huge game for us."
A commanding 31 point effort in the fourth quarter turned the tables in favour of the green and gold, securing their place in the championship match. But the victory came at a cost.
"Stupid me with 10 seconds to go, we were up — shouldn’t have even have shot it — shot it, and tried to do a tip back and came down on somebody’s foot and rolled my ankle," Harrower explained.
"She's got her foot in an an ice bucket at the moment," coach Jan Stirling said after the game. "The medical people will make an assessment, I really don't know at this point in time, it's too early to tell."
Between Harrower's untimely ankle injury and a nagging groin issue for Penny Taylor that flared up after the Brazil match, Australia's hopes of claiming the gold were seemingly in jeopardy.
"I remember Kristi hurting her ankle pretty bad," said Snell. "We were unsure if she’d get right for the Finals.
"She was obviously the floor general, and leading and organising us over there. She was crucial to our team, and so for her to go down in the last few seconds just before the Finals was a bit of a concern for us.
"But she did all the right thing, she was determined and wasn’t going to miss a game, that’s for sure, wasn’t going to miss a Finals game."
"My ankle was so black, that really I shouldn’t have played," Harrower admitted. "But lucky enough I had great medical staff, I went through a routine for 24 hours and could walk the next day, and then had the painkillers during the Grand Final."
Everything was leading towards the inevitable clash between the two teams that had gone undefeated the whole tournament. As impressive as Australia's +121 point differential was heading into the knockout stage, it was dwarfed by the +178 margin posted by USA.
The Americans dismantled Lithuania in the quarter-finals, 90-56, setting up a matchup against persistent underdogs Russia, who had just barely escaped with a win over Spain, 56-60.
What happened next was perhaps one of the biggest shocks in FIBA history.
Russia got off to a hot start over their heavily favoured rivals, leading 25-13 after the first quarter. The Americans would narrow the gap at halftime, just as everyone expected, only for the wheels to fall off in the third quarter. For the next ten minutes, the Russians played as if they were possessed, dominating the frame, 21-6.
"After we'd won the semi, I pretty much left straight away to come back and do my rehab routine that I did for my ankle," Harrower recalled. "I remember sitting in the hotel room and they had the game on the TV, and you could hear that we were screaming for Russia."
"They had Maria Stepanova dominating," said Snell, "I think they shot something like 50 or 60% from the three-point line."
In actuality, it was an incredible 57.1% beyond the arc, while the Americans couldn't even crack 40% from close range. The final score, 75-68, sent the presumptive favourites home, leaving an unexpected foe as the only thing standing between the Opals and gold.
"You’ve gotta be confident when you’re going into a gold medal game to try and beat USA, but we knew that it was always going to be a tough ask," Harrower confessed. "Then when Russia beat USA, our confidence just went to another level."
"We had a players’ meeting, and knew it was our opportunity to make history in Australian basketball," Snell added. "We didn’t want to get ahead of ourselves, (but) we wanted to make sure we did all of the right things leading up to that Finals game against Russia."
Though Russia had defied the odds, their Cinderella story would quickly turn back into a pumpkin once they faced off against Australia.
"We started slow, I remember that," said Harrower. "Russia got on top of us in the first couple of minutes, but once we started to score a little, then we started to get into it."
"The Russian game, I think we were just all so focussed on each possession, and focussed on the moment and not looking too far ahead," said Snell. "Once again Penny and Lauren stood out, and Kristi led the team so well.
"We had great contributions from everybody coming off the bench, and Jenny Whittle, she was able to nail that trail three at crucial times. It was just amazing to be part of such a history-making team, and it was a moment I’ll always remember."
"Penny Taylor had an MVP performance, didn’t she?" said Harrower. "I thought even I played alright on one leg!
"We had noticed with Russia, that if you got on top of them, then they start to sulk, then they start to play less. They just didn’t have the same confidence. They’re more front-runners, so we knew that if we could get on top of them, continue to play hard, I think we would have been in good shape.
"Lauren, Jenny Whittle, Belinda Snell, they all stood up when we needed them and it ended up being a great result for us."
Penny Taylor led all scorers with 28 points while proving to be a menace on the defensive glass, snagging 9 rebounds. Lauren Jackson added 16 points and 11 boards of her own.
Rounding out the scorers were Snell, with 12 points, 3 rebounds and 4 assists and Harrower, who contributed 15 points and a game-high 5 assists.
Lauren Jackson | Credit: FIBA
Australia took the lead in the first quarter and never looked back, taking the championship with a gratifying 91-74 victory. When the final buzzer sounded, the Opals were FIBA World Champions for the first time in their storied history.
"It was a little bit surreal," Snell recalled. "I think everyone just in shock a little bit, but also just so happy and excited.
"Brazil created the (perfect) atmosphere, they had samba dancers around, and everyone was just celebrating and so excited. In the change room everyone jumped together and couldn’t believe what we’d just done.
"It was incredible and I’m honoured to be part of a history making team — it was fantastic for women’s basketball and basketball in Australia."
"What I remember, is I tried to keep the ball," Harrower said with a laugh. "I actually had it in my hands and the referee came after me.
"I said 'no, no, no', but in the meantime, I was missing out on the celebration on the court. So in the end I said 'just bloody take it' and I celebrated with the girls.
"I wanted to keep it, but yeah, they took it off me. I do remember that."
Though Kristi Harrower may have been unable to hold onto the memento, the historical impact of the Opals campaign can never be taken away.
"It was special because of the group we had, a lot of us were very close," she continued. "As an athlete, there’s a lot of times you go away to a World Championship, or you go away to Olympics, and people don’t medal, you know?
"We had so much belief within the group, we just felt that we were good enough, we had world class players, but that moment was special for the lot of us. There’s not one player that didn’t get along with one another, it was a really special group to be able to do it with."
2006 World Champion Opals
Schedule of Results
12-Sep-06 | defeated Lithuania 2-0
13-Sep-06 | defeated Senegal 95-55
14-Sep-06 | defeated Canada 97-65
16-Sep-06 | defeated Spain 72-68
17-Sep-06 | defeated Brazil 82-73
18-Sep-06 | defeated Argentina 83-49
20-Sep-06 | defeated France 79-66
21-Sep-06 | Semi-Final: defeated Brazil 88-76
23-Sep-06 | Gold Medal Game: defeated Russia 91-74