For so long, the United States have stood between the Australian women’s basketball team and Olympic glory. At the 1996 Games in Atlanta, when the Opals won their first-ever Olympic bronze medal, it had been team USA that ended their gold medal run in the semi-finals. In Sydney in 2000, on the Opals’ home court, the two nations faced off in the final. The Australians again came off second best. It was the same in the gold medal match at Athens (albeit by a smaller margin) and the same again in Beijing.
At the 2012 Olympics in London, the Opals faced their familiar foes in the semi-final, losing to the USA. A bronze medal was their consolation after beating Russia in the next match. Had it not been for an unexpected loss to Serbia in the quarter-finals in Rio, a match-up with the Americans was inevitable.
The same is true at the Fiba World Cup: the Opals have won bronze three times, silver once and gold just once – in 2006, when Russia knocked out the Americans in the semi-finals on the other side of the draw. Wherever the grand stage, the USA has always been the ultimate challenge for the Australians. The ongoing absence of Olympic gold is a source of hurt for the Opals – particularly after making three consecutive finals in the 2000s.
But in Tokyo, the team almost did not make it out of the group stage. Stunned by the late withdrawal of star Liz Cambage – who cited mental wellbeing challenges around the bubble environment of Games as a factor – the Opals have struggled. Having lost to Group C opponents Belgium and China in their opening encounters, the Australians faced Puerto Rico on Monday needing to win by 25 points or more to progress to the knock-out round.
It was, as Opals captain Jenna O’Hea conceded afterwards, “the great escape”. Puerto Rico had lost heavily in their prior group matches, but were ahead at the first break and only one point down at half-time. It took a 23-8 run in the third quarter to give the Opals some breathing room, and then a last-gasp effort in the final few minutes to meet the margin required to ensure quarter-final qualification. “Knowing before the game that it was a 25-point margin, it’s a bit daunting in the back of your mind,” said O’Hea. “It wasn’t a small number at that.”
But following a brief moment of relief, the Opals were brought back to earth when the knock-out round draw was announced. Australia’s poor effort in the group stage meant they were unseeded in the draw. As mini-basketballs were selected from a bowl, the Opals’ old enemy were drawn against them – to meet on Wednesday afternoon.
It was the worst possible draw for the Australians. The American women have won gold at every Olympics since 1996. They have not lost a game since the 1992 semi-finals. Given the Opals’ rocky start, it is likely their Olympic campaign will end in the quarter-finals – two matches away from a medal. A win over their rivals at a pre-Olympic warm-up in Las Vegas will offer some hope, but the absence of Cambage will be felt acutely against the world class Americans. Whoever wins will face China or Serbia in the semi-final.
If the Australians are to have any chance against the dominant Americans, a much-improved performance from the Opals’ starting five will be required. Against Puerto Rico, an opening line-up of Leilani Mitchell, Ezi Magbegor, Bec Allen, Katie Ebzery and Cayla George struggled to find cohesion, particularly in defence. It took the addition of veterans O’Hea and Marianna Tolo to slow the Puerto Ricans. Against team USA, a disjointed defensive effort would spell disaster.
Magbegor will be particularly important against the United States. A rising star who spent her formative years at Basketball Australia’s academy program at the Australian Institute of Sport, the 21-year-old led the scoring in the Opals’ losses to Belgium and China. Magbegor had a quieter night in the final group match, but will need to be back at her best in the quarter-final.
After the great escape against Puerto Rico, Tolo was upbeat. “It’s a fresh start now, we’re into the quarter-finals and anything can happen,” said the 32-year-old. Anything can happen in Olympic basketball. But it will take a miraculous performance from the Opals to end team USA’s 52-match unbeaten streak at the Olympics.