The Opals have made it two wins in a row to start their Asia Cup campaign, rolling to an 82-44 victory over trans-Tasman rivals New Zealand. In doing so, they have set up a final day showdown with China to decide which team will advance directly to the semi-finals.
Three Australians finished in double figures, led by Ezi Magbegor’s 14 points on 6 of 7 shooting as the Opals shot 54% from the field and 55% from beyond the arc.
Coach Sandy Brondello chose to start with slightly more length than against the Philippines, inserting Ezi Magbegor into the lineup for Kate Ebzery against New Zealand’s five-out offence. However, the size advantage did not transfer into immediate points as the Opals found themselves unable to capitalise on some dismal shooting from the Tall Ferns in the early stages, managing just five points in the opening five minutes before Magbegor earned and converted an and-one to put the Opals up 8-2.
As the quarter progressed, the Tall Ferns began to show more aggressiveness on offence, which occasionally produced results. Yet too often possessions for the New Zealand side resulted in a three-point attempt, of which they connected on a lowly 2 of 13. Meanwhile at the other end, the Opals were able to find a couple of open looks from close range courtesy of some smart passing, culminating in a 17-11 lead after a quarter, with Brondello utilising 10 players in the opening term.
The Tall Ferns may have been dismal from beyond the arc in the first quarter, but Townsville Fire veteran Micaela Cocks buried two from deep early in the second to draw her side within two. Magbegor responded with a pair of tough shots from closer range to maintain the Opals lead. But with the Australians' ball security hardly stellar as New Zealand came up with 7 steals in the first 14 minutes, Brondello was forced into a timeout as the margin dwindled to two points with six minutes remaining in the half.
The stoppage proved to be an inspired choice as the next three Opals possessions ended in three-pointers for Ebzery, Jenna O’Hea, and Cayla George. Soon enough it was Tall Ferns coach Guy Molloy calling a timeout of his own. However the damage had already been done, and if not for some missed opportunities from close to the basket and at the free throw line, the Opals could all but have put the game away by halftime with a late flurry of points.
Some outstanding finishes through contact from Ebzery and Sara Blicavs, and a three right on the buzzer from Cayla George, ensured that the Opals would take a 43-25 lead into halftime. They ending the half in commanding fashion, going on a 22-6 run after that early timeout.
A transition three from Bec Allen extended the margin beyond 20 in the opening minute of the second half, but turnovers continued to be a problem for the Opals. With New Zealand being tormented by the Australian defence and their own inability to find the bottom of the net, the Tall Ferns’ score grew at a glacial pace. It allowed the Opals to open the second half on a 12-3 run and all but wrap up the victory with still 15 minutes to play.
Abby Bishop took over as the quarter progressed, scoring her first eight points of the game in the third quarter. The Opals would outscore New Zealand 20-6 to hold a 63-31 advantage with one quarter to play.
As was the case against the Philippines the night before, the Opals continued to put the foot down even as the result was now beyond a doubt. Once again, Brondello was able to keep players fresh in preparation for the final-day battle with China, with no player seeing more than Steph Talbot’s 20 minutes of playing time. The Australians’ defence remained solid throughout the latter stages, and after coughing up 11 first half turnovers, committed only 7 in the second half. They would power their way to an 82-44 victory that also saw the Opals out-rebound New Zealand 47-28.
Magbegor shot 6 of 7 from the field on her way to 14 points and 6 rebounds, whilst Darcee Garbin and Bishop also shot efficiently to finish with 13 and 10 points respectively. Cayla George came close to a second consecutive double-double with 8 points and 9 rebounds, with Nicole Seekamp posting a game-high 6 assists.
With two wins under their belt, the Opals will now play China for the opportunity to progress directly through to the semi-finals as group winners. That game tips off at 8pm (AEST) and will be shown live on Fox Sports 507 and Kayo.
Opals FIBA Asia Cup schedule
24 September: Opals defeated Philippines 122-57
25 September: Opals defeated New Zealand 82-44
26 September: Opals vs China – Tip-off at 8:00pm (AEST)
27 September: 2nd and 3rd place teams to play (Winner of groups advance)
28 September: Semi-finals
29 September: Medal games