The Australian Opals have brushed away the absence of star centre Liz Cambage to beat the US 70-67 in their one and only hit-out ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.
Just a day after Cambage – the undisputed star of the Opals – walked out on the team citing mental health issues, Australia dug deep to defeat the all-conquering US women’s team chasing their seventh straight gold medal in Tokyo.
It was Australia’s first win over the US in 11 years, and first ever for coach Sandy Brondello in her 17-year career as a player and a coach.
Ezi Magbegor was a dominant force for Australia with 17 points on 6-7 shooting, while Rebecca Allen and Steph Talbot also registered double figure points.
US spearhead Breanna Stewart, who also finished with 17 points, had the chance to send the game to overtime but missed her three pointer on the buzzer after getting away with what looked like a push off to get free from Kayla George.
While conscious of the fact the US rested many of their star players through the game, and it was only an exhibition, Brondello was unsurprisingly upbeat after a torrid 24 hours.
“It hasn’t been easy, definitely, but it shows the character of this team,” Brondello said of the impact Cambage’s dramatic departure had on the team.
“It’s been tough, I wasn’t quite sure what the game would look like today to be honest.
“Liz made a statement that was the right decision for her and we’re going to respect that decision and definitely going to support her, but for now she’s not going to be with us and we’re just focused on the future not the past.”
But with Cambage such a focus for the team on both ends of the court, there is a large adjustment to be made.
That adjustment seemed to be to go to the long ball, the Opals going 5-10 from three-point range in the first quarter to stay with the US.
But when you live and die by the three-pointer it can be tough to maintain the rage for long periods, the Opals going an ice-cold 1-9 in the second period as the US closed with an 18-3 run to take a dominant 41-28 lead into the long break.
With the US now resting their big names, Australia got themselves back on track in the second half with an increase in defensive intensity and willingness to vary their offence, a 20-6 run giving them a lead they would never relinquish.
“That was a huge adjustment. I love you taking open threes but when they’re not falling, we need to make sure we’re getting our feet in the paint and get post ups and try and exploit what we thought was a strength of ours,” Brondello said.
“When we had a good balance of inside outside attack, I think that’s when we were at our best.”
Brondello said the team was still awaiting word from the IOC as to whether they would be allowed to call in a replacement player for Cambage at the Games.