Stirling the jewel in Opals crown

Stirling the jewel in Opals crown

Stirling the jewel in Opals crown SHE masterminded Australia's gold-medal win at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne then created history by guiding the Opals to world championship success in Brazil, Peter KOGOY of The Australian writes. From The Australian View

Stirling the jewel in Opals crown

SHE masterminded Australia's gold-medal win at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne then created history by guiding the Opals to world championship success in Brazil, Peter KOGOY of The Australian writes.

From The Australian
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Jan Stirling's efforts were rewarded at the annual Confederation of Australian Sport awards in Melbourne last night by being named coach of the year. The Opals also took out the award for the international team of the year, edging out Australia's football and cricket teams.

Ever since a young, confident Opals team grabbed fourth place at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Australia's women basketballers had dreamed of a senior international gold medal.

Australia earned its first international medal at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, winning bronze, while a 17-year-old Lauren Jackson helped the team repeat that effort at the world titles two years later.

Australia went on to win silver behind the US at the past two Olympics, in Sydney in 2000 and Athens four years later.

"This journey to winning gold in Brazil started a hell of a long time ago and you feel the success for all your predecessors and for all the players that came before ... for the likes of a Michele Timms, Robyn Maher, Trish Fallon, the (Rachael) Sporns and (Pat) Mickans," Stirling said.

"The group I took to the Commonwealth Games and the one that went away to Brazil (for the world championship) were just fantastic.

"There were no issues and there were no problems. Right from the word go they were focused on the bigger picture. They always came ready to play."

Stirling said that although the Opals were favourite to win Commonwealth gold in Melbourne, they still had to get across the line.

"We got a little bit wobbly against Canada, and we knew Nigeria and New Zealand were going to be tough," she said.

"In the end the kids did marvellously well in the gold-medal match against New Zealand."

Stirling conceded the road to the summit of women's basketball proved a little scary at times.

The Opals came down to earth with a thud just two weeks after winning the inaugural Commonwealth Games basketball tournament, losing by 20 points against the US in Cairns.

But the national coach saw a vast improvement the next time the two teams met, when the Opals defeated the United States in Canberra by eleven points.

But more losses were to follow on a tour of China and Europe in the team's final preparation before heading to the world titles in Brazil.

"Russia was definitely the second-best team at the world titles. They had the United States down by 30 at one stage in their semi-final," Stirling said.

The coach confirmed that winning the semi-final against host nation Brazil, with 12,000 fans chanting "Brazil, Brazil" and the Opals trailing by seven points going into the final quarter, proved a turning point.

"The key, I thought, in the final against Russia after they had beaten us in the lead-up to the gold-medal match, was to hit them early and get them on the back foot," Stirling said.

"The thing I soon found out about this group was that there was a genuine passion and they had a real self-belief they could and would get the job done.

"They all worked bloody hard at training. It was Jenny Whittle and Holly Grima's roles to make Lauren Jackson a better player.

"It was up to Laura Summerton to make Penny Taylor a better player, while Belinda Snell grew in stature as we progressed through the tournament. In fact, everyone from team captain Lauren Jackson down to the rookies Erin Phillips, Tully Bevilaqua and Emma Randall, all had key roles to play."

Melbourne's Penny Taylor, who splits her time between playing in Italy and the WNBA, won the MVP, while Jackson earned herself All-Star Five status after finishing as the tournament's leading scorer.