The Opals are the women’s senior national basketball team representing Australia, and are named after the gemstone so common in the country. Basketball first arrived in Melbourne in 1905, and the Opals competed in their first international tournament at the 1957 FIBA World Championships. Since first competing in Brazil in 1957, the Opals have helped increase the popularity of the sport in Australia.
The first major international women’s tournament was the 1953 FIBA World Championships in Chile. The Opals did not qualify for the first tournament, but they did, however, qualify for the 1957 Championships. The team travelled to Brazil with an inexperienced team that included 16 year old Bronte Cockburn. The team put on a valiant effort, defeating Cuba and Peru, but ultimately finished in 10th place.
The Opals would not qualify for a World Championship again until the 1967 contest in Czechoslovakia. An entirely new team could not conjure a new result- despite a victory over Italy, Australia finished in 10th for the second time.
In 1971, the Opals travelled once again to Brazil. Led by new head coach Merv Harris, and featuring Jill Hammond, the team made several improvements. The Opals finished in ninth place, and notched victories over Madagascar (twice), Argentina, Equador and Canada.
Four years later, the team headed to Colombia with another new head coach, Jim Madigan. Despite a 74-25 drubbing of Senegal, as well as victories over Japan, Brazil and Hungary, the team finished again in 10th place.
Although 1976 marked the first Olympic medals awarded for women’s basketball, the Opals did not qualify for the tournament. Their next competition would be the 1979 World Championships in Korea, which would prove to be their first taste of success. The coach again was Jim Madigan, and the squad featured some of the faces of the Opals for the next decade such as Karin Fields, Robyn Maher, Patricia Mickan and Julie Nykiel. The team had success early, defeating Italy and France, as well as demolishing Malaysia 119-14. Australia would fall in their next three games, but bounced back, winning their final game over Japan to land in fourth place, their best finish to that time.
In the early days of women’s Olympic basketball, only six countries made the tournament, and the host country received an automatic bid. Therefore, there were 22 countries competing for the remaining five spots in 1980. Despite a valiant effort, the Opals fell to the USA and Hungary in the preliminary tournament, and did not qualify for the Olympics. Three years later, the team traveled to Brazil for the World Championships, looking to prove their 1979 success was no fluke. The team had a tough draw, and despite an early victory over Japan, Australia failed to advance and finished in 11th place.
Led by head coach Brendan Flynn, the Opals qualified for their first Olympics only a few months later in 1984. The team headed to Los Angeles, where despite playing tough in every game, finished fifth out of the six teams.
The next tournament for the Opals was the 1986 World Championships in Moscow. The first game against Hungary was a two overtime thriller that the Opals just barely lost 79-77. The game set the tone for the tournament, as despite playing some of the top teams close, Australia finished in ninth place.
The Opals headed into the 1988 Seoul Olympics with some medal hopes, but they were dashed when they lost the first game to host Korea. Australia bounced back and defeated Bulgaria, meaning that only the powerful USSR stood between them and a semi-finals berth. Surprising the world, the Opals upset the USSR 60-48, setting up a meeting against Yugoslavia. In a memorable game, the Opals lost a heartbreaker at the buzzer 57-56, sending them to a rematch with the USSR for the bronze medal. Motivated by the previous loss, the USSR came out determined and outplayed the Opals 68-53. Despite the loss, the fourth place finish was tied for the Opals’ best international placing.
Building off their successes at Seoul, the Opals headed to Malaysia for the 1990 World Championships with high hopes. The team won their first two games against Malaysia and Italy, before suffering a string of losses to Bulgaria, the USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. In their final game, the Opals came back from seven point halftime deficit to beat Bulgaria 73-71 and finish in sixth place.
Fifteen teams competed for the five open spots at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and despite a respectable 4-2 record at the preliminary tournament, the Opals did not qualify. The team did not have much time to brood, as they played host to the 1994 FIBA World Championships. Led by guard Shelley Sandie’s 11.9 points per game, the team scored victories over Japan, Italy, Slovakia and Canada to set up a semi-finals match against China. China mounted a second half comeback spurred by Haixia Zheng’s 36 points, and Australia just barely lost 66-65. In the bronze medal game, Australia played the United States, and despite a small halftime lead, the Opals lost a close game 100-95. Nonetheless, the team brought the hometown fans a respectable fourth place finish.
In 1996, the Olympic tournament expanded to twelve teams, making an easier path for Australia to qualify. Captained by Robyn Maher, the Opals started off strong with wins over Korea, Zaire, and Cuba before stumbling to eventual gold medalist USA and Ukraine. Australia then persevered through an overtime game against Russia to set up a semi-finals match against the United States. The US won the game 93-71, sending the Opals to a rematch against the Ukraine for the bronze medal. Australia held back a second half comeback by the Ukraine to win the game 66-56, earning Australia its first ever basketball medal for either men or women.
In 1998, the Opals looked to build off the bronze medal at the World Championships in Germany. The team featured 17 year old forward/centre Lauren Jackson, and was led by Michelle Brogan’s 13.1 points per game. Australia put together a dominant performance, winning their first seven games before losing to Russia 82-76 in a close semi-final match. In the bronze medal game, Carla Boyd’s 26 points proved too much for Brazil, and the Opals won 72-67 to earn their second bronze medal in international play.
The 2000 Olympics promised to be an exciting affair for the Opals, as Sydney played host to the Games. Captained by Michele Timms, the team started out with a dominating performance for the hometown fans, winning all of their first seven games to send them to their first ever gold medal match, against the USA. Ultimately, the American team proved too much for the Opals as they won 76-54, but Australia walked away with a smile on their faces because of the silver medal in their pockets.
In 2002, the Opals looked to continue their success in China at the World Championships. Coached by Jan Stirling, captained by Kristi Harrower, and powered by Lauren Jackson’s 23.1 points per game (which led the tournament), Australia won its first five games all by double digits. Australia slipped up in the second round to Brazil, but bounced back with a 78-52 victory over France in the quarterfinal. In the semi-finals, the Opals lost to eventual gold medalist USA, but recovered the next day to capture the bronze medal with a convincing 91-63 win over Korea.
In 2004, the Olympics headed to their birthplace in Athens, Greece. The Opals were led by Lauren Jackson’s tournament best 22.9 points per game and 10 rebounds per game, and Penny Taylor chipped in with 14.8 points per game. Australia dominated the early going, winning their first seven games all by double digits to set up a rematch of the 2000 Olympic gold medal match against the USA. The Opals played a tough match throughout, but the United States outlasted the Opals in the fourth quarter to win 74-63, giving the Opals their second straight Olympic silver medal.
The Opals headed to Brazil for the 2006 World Championships looking to win their sixth straight medal in international competitions. The team did not disappoint. Led by Lauren Jackson’s 21.3 points per game and Penny Taylor’s 18 points per game, first and third best in the tournament respectively, the Opals played their best tournament to date. Australia began the tournament with a forfeit victory over Lithuania, and continued the trend by winning their next seven games decisively, with only one contest being decided by less than 10 points. In the gold medal game against Russia, the Opals led throughout, paced by Penny Taylor’s 28 points and Lauren Jackson’s 11 rebounds. At the final buzzer, the scoreboard read Australia 91, Russia 74—a convincing victory that delivered Australia’s first ever basketball gold medal.
In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Opals looked to reaffirm the World Championship. There was little resistance in the early stages, as Australia rolled out victories against Belarus, Brazil, Korea, Latvia, Russia, the Czech Republic and host China to set up a third straight gold medal match against the United States. The Opals played tough, but had trouble hitting the basket, as they shot just 24% en route to a 92-65 defeat. The team earned their third straight Olympic silver medal, and their seventh straight international medal finish.
At the 2010 FIBA World Championship in the Czech Republic, the Opals looked to defend their world title. After sweeping through the first round with a perfect record and wins over Belarus, China and Canada, they appeared to be on track to do just that. In the eight-final round, the Opals continued their win streak with victories over Greece and France, before suffering a narrow 83-75 loss to the USA. That placed the Australians in a Quarter Final clash with host nation Czech Republic. Buoyed by their home crowd, the Czechs upset the Opals 79-68 to eliminate Australia from medal conmtention. After bouncing back to record wins over Russia and France, Australia would finish the tournament in fifth place.
The Opals were determined to return to the podium at the 2012 London Olympic Games and qualified for the torunament by beating New Zealand 3-0 in the 2011 FIBA Oceania Championship. They opened play in London with a strong win against host nation Great Britain but suffered an upset defeat in overtime against France in their second pool game despite a half-court shot from Belinda Snell forcing an extra period. The Opals steadied to beat Brazil, Russia and Canada to close out the group stage, and downed China in their Quarter Final, but the loss to France put them on a collision course with the USA. They met the Americans in the Semi Finals, and despite a brave fight were defeated 86-73. That loss put Australia into the Bronze Medal game against Russia, who they had beaten earlier in the tournament. The Opals ensured they won their fifth consecutive Olympic medal by defeating Russia 83-74 to clinch the Bronze.