The Australian Opals have secured a spot at next year’s Rio Olympics with a 17-point win over New Zealand to close out their two-game qualifying series.
Building on their 20-point first-leg victory in Melbourne on Saturday, the national women’s basketball team put on a dominant second-half display in Tauranga on Monday to claim the 80-63 victory.
Three-time Olympian Laura Hodges led the way with 22 points and five rebounds, helped by experienced duo Suzy Batkovic (15 points) and Rachel Jarry (nine points).
Micaela Cocks top scored for the Tall Ferns with 21 points and seven rebounds, while Lisa Wallbutton added 10.
While both sides had improved on Saturday night’s effort, they again struggled to knock down shots early on.
The Opals found it especially hard, particularly from long-range, as the Tall Ferns dictated the pace and stepped it up in defence.
Their first four points all came via free-throws, and it took more than three minutes to land any from the field.
It was a tough and defence-dominated opening quarter, which ended level at 14-14.
But the experience of Hodges, Batkovic and Jarry lifted Australia in the second term for a 40-33 lead at the main break.
Their high-energy continued into the third quarter and the Tall Ferns felt it, committing four fouls in the opening minutes.
The momentum swung entirely the visitors’ way after that, with the green and gold flexing their muscle and showing why they are ranked No.2 in the world.
Hodges sealed the victory with the last five points.
The Opals have now won every Oceania series since 1974, and are on their way to a sixth successive Olympics.
Opals well placed to break golden duck in Rio: Jackson
The Opals have won a medal at every Games since Atlanta in 1996, including three silver and two bronze.
But legend Lauren Jackson said she believed Australia were better placed than ever to go one better and win gold at Rio.
“I’ve been in championship teams my whole career … and you have this feeling going into it, this air of success,” the four-time Olympian said.
“I feel like at the moment, we have that.
“I really believe that we can do something special in Rio – we could win a gold medal, absolutely.
“Whether I’m on the team or not, they have probably the best opportunity they’ve ever had to win that gold – especially if Liz (Cambage) is healthy and fit.
“I’m really excited.”
The Tall Ferns will get a second chance at qualifying in a repechage tournament involving 12 teams in June next year, with the top five earning a spot.
Hodges lauded the Opals efforts after being bounced around by their hosts at the outset.
“The Tall Ferns came out and they were physical, they were strong, they were tough, they had a great game plan,” the captain said.
“But we stuck together and I’m really happy to get the win.”
With a squad of 34 and just 12 available for Rio, the 31-year-old said there were no guarantees she’d be on the plane to Brazil.
“It’s good for the young girls to step up tonight, but everyone’s going to be fighting for that spot in Rio,” she added.
“I’ll be fighting to try and make the team. I’ve been to three Olympics but I really want to go to four.”
Her New Zealand counterpart Natalie Taylor said defensively, the Tall Ferns could’ve done better.
But she was happy with their attack and was looking ahead to next year’s qualifying tournament.
“It’s really important for us to have an opportunity to go there,” she said.
“We have to compete against the number two in the world every time to get to a world event, so it’s not an easy challenge.”