The Opals have been unable to start their 2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup campaign on a winning note, last night falling to France 70-57 in a game that showed the Opals have work to do — especially on the offensive end – to compete against the best teams in the world.
In what was a packed-out Sydney Superdome with 9,291 in attendance, Australian fans were out in force hoping to see an Opals win, but French superstar Gabby Williams had other ideas.
The stadium erupted when the legendary Lauren Jackson checked into the game for the first time, and the 41-year-old – who last played for Australia nine years ago – certainly gave Australia some good minutes in the first half and late in the fourth quarter.
Despite the Opals staying within striking distance of France for the first three quarters, it was Australia’s struggles on offence that ultimately sank their hopes of a comeback win.
The Opals’ inability to hit shots meant their defence could only keep them afloat for so long, and eventually France ran over the top as Williams sank a dagger triple in the final two minutes to finish with a game-high 23 points on an efficient 67 per cent shooting from the field.
While Williams was economical, Australia was anything but. The Opals connected on just 26 per cent of shots from the field and a measly 21.7 per cent from deep. Shooting numbers like that and a total of 57 points simply isn’t going to get the job done at a World Cup.
Sharpshooter Bec Allen will be the key to everything Australia does in this tournament, but she will need teammates to help share the load on offence.
The only Opal to score in double figures, Allen (16 points and 4 rebounds) kept the scoreboard ticking over early in the game, but as France’s defensive intensity rose, Australia’s offence couldn’t cope with the pressure and turnovers mounted quickly.
You’d be forgiven for thinking Australia doesn’t boast an array of great shooters after last night’s performance, but that isn’t the case.
The likes of Sami Whitcomb, Steph Talbot and Darcee Garbin are all world-class shooters from deep, but they didn’t hit a single triple in the game, going a combined 0/10 from long range. This typified Australia’s night, with players unable to make the most of what are usually their strengths on the court, and Ezi Magbegor also struggling to finish around the basket.
Many of Australia’s turnovers were the result of communication errors and lazy ball handling, and as the turnovers started to take their toll, the Opals went back into their shells and ball movement was close to non-existent.
The Opals need to get the ball in the hands of their shooters coming off screens, not relying on them to constantly create their own shot as the clock ticks down.
Worryingly, this game had a similar feel on the offensive end to the Tokyo Olympics campaign where the Opals couldn’t get anything going offensively for much of the tournament and finished ninth overall.
The good news is that despite all of the offensive woes, there were real positives to be taken out of this game that Australia can build upon, especially as they face a much lower-ranked opponent, Mali, tonight.
Perhaps the biggest positive was that for large parts of the game, Australia’s defence held strong. It was a defensive battle for much of the game, and Steph Talbot led Australia on that end of the floor with all-out effort and hustle.
Coach Sandy Brondello will have plenty to think about rotation-wise going forward. And the play of Kristy Wallace and Marianna Tolo – who were used sparingly – warranted more court time for both. Wallace is one of Australia’s best perimeter defenders and her relentless attitude of never giving up on a play and harassing opposing guards to the point of total frustration needs to be better utilised.
Her defensive work is elite, but by also giving her more ball-handling responsibility it would help to free up the shooting brilliance of Whitcomb, who was tied down for much of the night with running Australia’s offence from the top of the key.
After only playing just over two minutes in the first half of the game, Tolo came into her own in the third quarter and did what she has done consistently for the Opals over the course of her career; fight and scrap for the betterment of the team.
Her third quarter changed the momentum of the game. She was subbed in and quickly scored, before helping to force France into a turnover and then producing three efforts in a matter of seconds which finished with an and-1 play that got the vocal Australian crowd on their feet.
At times, the Opals lacked that manic but under-control attack on offence. It’s a fine line to walk, especially in the opening game of a World Cup on home soil when the adrenaline is pumping, but a player that can add so much value in that aspect of the game is Anneli Maley.
The only Opal not to see court time last night, the reigning WNBL MVP is a workhorse who will stop at nothing to grab an offensive rebound, dive for a loose ball and create energy on both ends of the court. Injecting her into rotation would give Australia more versatility on the offensive end.
While it was a far from ideal opening to a World Cup campaign for the Opals, it’s certainly not all doom and gloom. France – ranked sixth in the world – are a very good team and they will trouble many opponents throughout this tournament, but the Opals need to handle defensive pressure better.
They also need to hit more shots, which they should if they take care of the ball.
Facing Mali – ranked 37th in the world – presents the Opals with a golden opportunity to bounce back and generate some momentum as the tournament really kicks into gear.