Strong start not enough as Opals fall to Japan in Asia Cup semi-final

For the second time in as many tournaments, Japan have secured victory over Australia at the FIBA Asia Cup, moving to the gold medal game with a 76-64 win.

The Opals had set the game up nicely with a 17-6 start to the game, but a 5-20 second quarter undid their good work and handed Japan the momentum, which they parlayed into the 12-point victory. Jenna O’Hea led three Opals in double figures with 12 points, but a monster 19-point, 15-rebound double-double from Yuki Miyazawa and 22 points from Nako Motohashi led Japan to victory.

The Opals came out with the same long lineup that they had utilised for most of the tournament and it paid off early, as Bec Allen drained an early three before coming up with a block to cover a defensive breakdown on the next possession. That set off a flurry of early threes from the Opals as Cayla George and Jenna O’Hea followed in kind, leading to a Japanese timeout with the scoreline reading 11-2 after just 3 minutes.

Japan briefly improved at the offensive end out of the timeout, but the Opals adjusted to continue their early dominance. The Australians utilised their mobility in transition, whilst their defence forced Japan into long-range shots which never looked like falling as the score jumped out to 17-6.

However changes on both sides opened up chances going to the rack for Japan, and with the Opals’ offence starting to splutter in the back end of the quarter, the margin was briefly as close as four. Ezi Magbegor’s return to the court sparked a final minute surge to put Australia up 23-15 after a quarter.

Japan attempted to push the pace in transition, but the Opals came out showing some real intensity on defence to prevent any easy baskets for their opponents. Yet the Australians weren’t able to find much on offence either, with Japanese star Ramu Tokashiki coming up with a pair of early blocks and their execution failing them at time.

Despite scoring just two points in the first six minutes of the second quarter, the Opals somehow maintained a lead before another three from George doubled her side’s advantage to six heading into the final three minutes of the term. Japan quickly countered, forcing Australia into a timeout with the scoreline reading 28-27 as the Opals lead threatened to evaporate completely. That would happen shortly after courtesy of a three from Miyazawa, which proved to be the catalyst for a quarter-ending 8-0 run that saw the halftime score read 35-27.

The Opals would lose the second quarter 5-20 as Japan wrested momentum from the Australians, who committed four turnovers to just one from their opponents, scuppering the offence on multiple occasions.

The halftime break did little to slow Japan’s momentum, with a three from the top of the arc swishing home to open the second half. With Motohashi taking over for the team in red and white, Japan threatened to go on a significant run. Thankfully Leilani Mitchell came out of her shell with seven quick points to drag the Opals back within four as the third term approached its midpoint. With their offensive movement and execution improving, the Opals were able to keep themselves within touching distance of their opponents. But with Japan getting to the free throw line with regularity and the Opals coughing up the occasional second chance opportunity, that was as close as they would get as the third term ended with Japan’s lead cut to 52-48.

Three offensive rebounds on the opening possession somehow couldn’t culminate in points for the Opals, and a three in response from Japan threatened to break the game open. But with Mitchell and Allen hitting shots, the Australians managed to find a response to Japan’s scoring.

However responses wouldn’t be enough at this stage, as the margin continued to hover between five and eight points before another inevitable Japanese run transpired as the Opals’ shot selection continued to fail them on multiple occasions. The lead reached 13 inside the final four minutes, leading to a timeout from coach Sandy Brondello to plan out the Opals’ final charge.

The Opals were able to prevent the lead from blowing out any further, but it quickly became apparent that Japan had secured victory with two minutes to play. O’Hea swished home a late three to take her personal tally to a team-high 12 points, but it would be Japan who advanced to the gold medal game with a 76-64 victory.

Alongside O’Hea’s 12 points, Bec Allen finished with 11 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists, whilst Leilani Mitchell added 10 points and 4 assists. However, the Opals lost the turnover and rebound counts, whilst shooting just 33% from the field and sending Japan to the line for 16 free throws to 8.

The Opals will now face either Korea or China in the bronze medal game, with that game tipping off on Sunday at 8:00pm (AEST), live on Fox Sports 507 and Kayo.

Box Score

Opals FIBA Asia Cup schedule

24 September: Opals defeated Philippines 123-57

25 September: Opals defeated New Zealand 82-44

26 September: Opals lost to China 70-69

27 September: Australia defeated Chinese Taipei 90-51

28 September: Australia lost to Japan 76-64

29 September: Australia v Korea/China (8pm AEST)