The Sapphires' charge towards a second consecutive Under-17 World Cup gold medal has ended at the hands of France, who staged a daring comeback to rally from 15 points down to secure a 68-58 semi-final victory.
Guard trio Lily Scanlon, Shyla Heal, and Isabel Palmer all finished in double figures, with Palmer burying five three-pointers to tally 17 points. Yet a turnover count of 24-10, combined with impressive French defence, put the Australians on the back foot as the game unfolded.
The length of the French front court troubled the Australians early, culminating in two turnovers in their first two possessions, but the French side could only capitalise once courtesy of a Zoe Wadoux three, which was immediately countered by one from Isabel Palmer. A relatively cagey start from both sides on offence saw turnovers eventuate from both sides, with an offensive foul each way breaking up any momentum either side was trying to generate. However, despite five turnovers inside the first five minutes of the game, the Sapphires took a 10-9 lead courtesy of Palmer’s second three of the game before tournament MVP candidate Iliana Rupert’s immediate response from close range for France.
Palmer’s hot shooting continued with a third long bomb before rebounding her own missed shot and drawing a foul, with the resulting second chance culminating in Lily Scanlon finding her way to the basket to extend the Australian lead to 15-11. A rare sighting of Scanlon, Palmer, and Shyla Heal all on court together through much of the first quarter provided some additional quickness that troubled the French defence. With the Sapphires continuing to show why they are one of the top defensive teams in the tournament, the lead jumped out to 19-11 by the end of the first quarter, with Palmer tallying 11 of those Australian points.
Scanlon buried a three from the corner to open the second quarter, and although turnovers continued to trouble the Australians, their shooting proved vastly superior to the French to help mitigate the issue. When Scanlon finished a tough lay-up on the break before converting an and-one, the lead had jumped out to 27-15 as the French missed 9 of their first 10 attempts from deep.
A timeout midway through the second quarter saw the French come out with a renewed desire to get the ball inside, and they found far more success, forcing Scanlon to pick up a third foul late in the second term as the lead was cut to 8. But Gemma Potter finished from close range, and Palmer buried yet another three. Isobel Anstey proved to be a game-changer in the paint, worrying France out of opportunities around the basket. The energy of Agnes Emma-Nnopu also proved vital down the stretch, with the Sapphires’ forward rewarded with the final basket of the half from close range that put the Australians up 36-21 despite 13 turnovers. A 34-17 rebounding advantage and 44% shooting compared to France’s 22% combined to deliver a significant lead.
Another missed three from France opened the second half, but a long rebound allowed a second chance opportunity which was duly converted from close range by Rupert, who moved to 14 points with the basket. Marine Fauthoux followed up with a three shortly after as the French came out with a renewed vigour after halftime. Five offensive rebounds inside the first three minutes of the quarter kept the Australian opportunities to a minimum, and eventually Fauthoux found her way to the line, but could only split a pair. Emma-Nnopu responded in kind, but a Wadoux three cut the Australian lead to 37-32 and forced an Australian timeout just shy of midway through the third quarter.
The timeout failed to stop the French momentum as a block and a turnover led to two more consecutive baskets for France, and when Yohana Ewodo found herself wide open for an offensive rebound and put back, the Australian lead had completely evaporated on the back of a 17-1 run. It enabled the French to take a 38-37 lead, with their full-court press giving the Sapphires plenty of trouble throughout the third period.
The French lead increased by a further two points before Heal was fouled rebounding her own shot, putting Australia in the bonus and finally allowing the Sapphires to add two more points to their score. Eliza Hollingsworth then finished from close range courtesy of an assist from Potter, and the Australians had regained the advantage, albeit by the slenderest margin possible. It was then the Sapphires’ turn to grab a few offensive boards, but they found themselves unable to convert the additional opportunities. A late Kendra Chery three saw France take a 43-41 lead into the final term after a dominant 22-5 quarter which was established on some outstanding high pressure defence and vastly improved shooting.
Some excellent ball movement from the Sapphires to open the final term culminated in Heal tying the game with a brilliant drive to the basket, but France continued to pressure the Australians in the back court whenever the opportunity arose. The Sapphires stepped up the defensive intensity which slowed the French on offence, although Chery’s driving lay-up saw the French forward earn and convert an and-one chance to take a 46-43 lead.
Heal found Georgia Amoore with a skip pass that saw her bury the game-tying three, but the French managed a riposte to counter every Australian basket to maintain their slender lead. Wadoux knocked down another three to continue to atone for her relatively poor first half, and although Rupert missed a pair at the line soon after, the French retained a five-point margin as Alex Fowler did the same at the other end after drawing a foul driving baseline.
A Sapphires timeout following a shot clock violation, down 53-46 with four minutes to play, served almost as the final chance for coach Shannon Seebohm to deliver a match-winning strategy to his charges as they looked to launch a comeback. Immediately, Emma-Nnopu picked up a loose ball in the paint and dropped it in, but couldn’t convert the additional free throw. Palmer buried yet another three soon after, and suddenly the margin was back to two. Chery responded with a basket from close range, and yet another Australian turnover -- their 24th of the game -- resulted in another three from Wadoux. Fauthoux then buried one from beyond NBA range, and with just a minute remaining the margin had jumped out to 61-53.
Another timeout allowed Seebohm to set up a play for the Sapphires, with Heal knocking down a three to give the Aussies some life, but the French managed to respond. A late unsportsmanlike foul from Amoore when trying to stop the clock gave the French two shots and possession, all but dooming the late Australian charge. France proved composed enough at the line in the final minute to knock down their shots, rounding out a 15-point comeback with a 47-22 second half to secure a 68-58 victory and secure a spot in the final.
The Sapphires’ scoring was led by 17 points from Palmer who knocked down 5 of 8 from three-point range. Scanlon added 12 points while Heal tallied 11 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists. Emma-Nnopu was also solid to finish with 7 points and 7 rebounds, but the Australians could not overcome a turnover margin of 24-10 or the outstanding play of Rupert and a big second half from French guard Zoe Wadoux.
Australia will now face Hungary in the playoff for bronze after the Hungarians fell to the United States in the other semi-final. That game will be played at 1:00am Monday morning, with broadcast details yet to be confirmed.
Australia 58 (Palmer 17p; Scanlon 12p; Heal 11p, 8r, 5a) France 68 (Rupert 20p, 14r, 4s, 6b; Wadoux 16p; Fauthoux 11p, 3r, 4a)
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 lost to France 58-68 29 July: Playoff for Bronze: Australia vs Hungary @ 1:00am AEST
Broadcast arrangements for the bronze medal game have yet to be confirmed.