Written by Kane Pitman.
Leilani Mitchell would acrobatically finish a lay-up with 12 seconds left to give the Opals their first lead since the second quarter at 69-68, before Ting Shao converted on the other end to regain the lead for China.
The Opals were unable to get a shot away with their final possession, with China stealing the ball and icing the clock to seal victory.
The game was the fourth time the two teams had met in the last fortnight, with the Chinese avenging their three losses in Canberra last week. It was a bruising encounter at times, as both teams hit the hardwood with regularity.
The opening minutes went exactly to script for Sandy Brondello’s team, as the Opals raced out to an 10-2 lead after just three minutes. The Australians scored on five of their first seven shot attempts in that stretch, as they were able to execute their transition offence with precision.
From that point on, the easy baskets dried up, as the game became a fierce battle in the half-court. After cruising to two easy victories to begin the FIBA Women’s Asia Cup, the Opals at times appeared frustrated by their inability to execute their usual breathtaking game style.
“China came ready to play, we had a slow start tonight and their physicality bothered us around the floor, and we let that get to us,” Opals assistant coach, Paul Goriss admitted postgame.
The Opals would concede their advantage at the 9:26 mark of the second quarter, with the Chinese gaining momentum to lead by as many as nine points on several occasions across the second and third periods.
With the deficit fluctuating between three and six points for the majority of the fourth, it was Sara Blicavs who came up clutch, burying a corner three to bring the Opals within two points. Darcee Garbin then finished a lay-up and the scores were tied with 3:52 to play.
Blicavs would attempt another long-range shot, only for the ball to agonisingly rim out after going halfway down. A nifty reverse lay-up a few minutes later from the Southside Flyers star would cap off an influential fourth quarter that led the Australian fightback.
“I think I’m pretty chilled on the bench, Sandy came to me with about five minutes to go and told me I was going to sub on for Jenna [O'Hea]. I wasn’t nervous, I was more excited because in my head I just want to go out there and get offensive boards. I didn’t get that offensive board, but I managed to get some shots up,” Blicavs said postgame.
After the 5-for-7 start, Australia would manage just 19-for-53 shooting from the field, with a number of close-range attempts uncharacteristically missing for the usually efficient Opals.
“A little bit of focus on finishing lay-ups and finishing free-throws was definitely a concern for us. Not getting to train when we’ve had the early games, not having the ball in people’s hands to get some shooting touch. It’s not an excuse, but it comes back to focus and a little more practice for us,” Goriss said.
Katie Ebzery would lead all scorers for Australia with 13 points, while Mitchell and Garbin would add nine. Jenna O’Hea would dish out six assists on the night to go with her eight points and four rebounds.
The main consequence of the loss for Australia is that there will be no days off on the road to a potential gold medal game on Sunday. A win against China would have resulted in a semi-final berth on Saturday, but they will now be faced with a quarter-final on Friday.
Despite the loss, Goriss and the Opals camp remain positive, as they now look forward to Friday, and a chance to avenge tonight’s loss.
“I just think we weren’t ready to play today, and it showed. All credit to China for their game plan, their switching, their aggressiveness on defence but we get an opportunity to play tomorrow and get better,” Goriss said.
The Chemist Warehouse Opals will face the winner of Chinese Taipei-India in the quarter-final . Tip-off time to be determined – Watch live on Fox Sports channel 507 or stream on Kayo.