For the Chemist Warehouse Australian Opals, this match against France was always going to be the toughest test of the three-game Olympic qualification series.
A raucous French crowd cheered on a determined home nation, and the fans in Bourges left happy as France defeated Australia (72-63) in the early hours of Friday morning (Australia time). It was a disappointing result for Sandy Brondello’s Australian Opals outfit, but it wasn’t without its positives.
Las Vegas Aces superstar Liz Cambage quickly reestablished herself into the national setup, scoring five of the Opals’ first seven points. Cambage was particularly imposing on the defensive end. With over five minutes to go in the second quarter, Cambage already had a double-double.
The New York Liberty’s Marine Johannès (12 points, 4/11 from three-point range) played off the bench for France and had an immediate impact when subbed into the game, hitting two three-pointers to put France to a 10-point lead (23-13). A 16-4 run saw Australia pull back, evening the score at 27-27 when Leilani Mitchell shot truly from beyond the arc.
But just as Cambage went to the bench to address some concerns on her right shoulder, France reeled off another 9-point run. Bria Hartley, another Frenchwoman of the New York Liberty, scored 6 consecutive points, ensuring France would go into the half-time break with a 6-point lead.
France took their first-half momentum into the third quarter, reeling off 7 consecutive points to put Australia in a 13-point hole.
It gave Opals head coach Brondello plenty to think about, and again Australia rallied. The hosts had no answers for Cambage, who came back into the game and was utterly dominant on her way to 19 points and 20 rebounds.
When Bec Allen (20 points, 7/12) hit an opportunistic three-pointer and followed it up with two converted free throws on Australia’s next possession, the Opals had pulled back the French lead to just three.
Hartley’s buzzer-beater as the third quarter expired restored France’s 5-point buffer. Both teams, as strange as it seems, would have taken heart from that margin heading into the final quarter.
Three costly fouls in the opening minute of the fourth quarter put Australia on the backfoot, and Hartley punished Australia with the opening basket of the quarter and a sweet assist to a wide-open Johannes moments later that resulted in a three-pointer. When Johannes made her fourth three-pointer of the game soon after, France had a 13-point buffer. Alexia Chartarea hit a jumper of her own to cap a 10-point run for France and put the dagger in the Aussie squad.
The Australian challenge was finally snuffed out when French centre Sandrine Gruda made a three-point play with two minutes to go, taking France a step closer to Olympic qualification. The final margin was 72-63 in front of a jubilant Bourges arena.
FRANCE 72 (Sandrine Gruda 16 points, Bria Hartley 13, Marine Johannes 12)
AUSTRALIA 63 (Bec Allen 20 points, Liz Cambage 19, Katie Ebzery 8)
It is far from over for Australia. With two matches remaining, Australia’s task is now to defeat both Puerto Rico and Brazil to ensure qualification for this year’s Olympics. There is also a path for a one-win, two-loss team to finish third and make it to Tokyo.
As Puerto Rico shocked Brazil 91-89 in the other qualifier, the Brazilians are in the group’s toughest position having lost the most winnable fixture of their three-game schedule.
Australia’s next game is scheduled against Puerto Rico in the early hours of Sunday morning (4:00am, AEDT), followed by an encounter with Brazil on Monday morning (12.00am, AEDT).
You can watch both games live on Fox Sports 505 or Kayo.