Jet-lagged and well below full strength, the world champion Australian Defence Force Opals showed they had more than enough depth to handle their closest opposition in their own neighbourhood, defeating the NZ Tall Ferns 78-46 in the opening game of the FIBA Oceania Championship in Dunedin.
Even with only two survivors from last year’s successful line-up, they proved a class above the plucky Kiwis, themselves without inspirational leader Donna Wilkins throughout this year’s campaign.
Sydney Uni Flames forward Natalie Porter led all scorers with 16 points (8/16 FG) and was ably supported by Emma Randall (13 points) and Alicia Poto (12 points, 5/8 FG, 2/4 3pt).
“We were mindful of [the travel], but when you play for your nation, you put all that aside and do your best.” Australian Defence Force Opals head coach Jan Stirling said.
“We had a goal at halftime to keep them under 50, which we thought was achievable. It was a good hit-out, but full credit to New Zealand for fighting it out all the way.”
The home team actually scored first through a baseline jumper from guard Kate McMeeken-Ruscoe, but veterans Alicia Poto and Natalie Porter conspired in a six-point run that carried the Opals clear for good.
By the end of the opening period, Australia were 17-11 up and immediately stretched that advantage to double figures with a three-point play to Rohanee Cox and a trey from Poto immediately after the restart.
The Opals reached halftime 36-22 ahead and the margin reached 20 points when Michelle Brogan’s lay-up took the scoreline to 49-28.
New Zealand continued to hang on gamely, but fell away to concede the final 11 points of the contest.
The Aussies could have been excused for feeling flat, having returned home from a tour of Europe and the United States just last weekend, then flown across the Tasman the day before the Oceania opener.
Coach Jan Stirling applied full court pressure for much of the game, but shared the court time around equitably, allowing everyone a chance to settle into their work. As a team, the Opals shot 47.8 per cent from the field and held their opponents to just 30.5 percent.
“They all had their moments,” observed Stirling.
“I don’t think any one player stood out and really that’s how we’re going to win with this group.
“We really have 12 role players here and we need bits out of everybody to get a successful win.”
Last time these two adversaries met, Australia prevailed 99-52 at the William Jones Cup in Taiwan two months ago. Tall Ferns coach Mike McHugh observed this result represented an improvement, but found little comfort in that appearance.
“I was disappointed with the scoreline,” he admitted.
“I thought there were certain periods of the game where, if we had stuck to what we were doing, we could have hung in there.
“Our performance was up and down. We had good patches and bad patches, and in those bad patches, they punished us very quickly.”
Pint-sized point guard Angela Marino had 15 points (6/15 FG, 2/6 3pt, 1/4 FT), three assists and three steals for the Kiwis, but their best performer was young centre Jess McCormack, who compiled a “double double” of 10 points (4/9 FG, 2/2 FT), 12 rebounds and three blocks in a game-high 36 minutes.
McHugh pointed at his team’s poor shooting and high turnover rate – they committed 18 to Australia’s seven – as the areas of gravest concern.
“But now we have a measure. If we can get past Fiji, we get another crack at Australia in the final on Saturday.
“That’s a challenge for us to put up a better performance.”
New Zealand have a bye on Thursday as Australia face a Fijian squad of just eight players, featuring none of the starting five that took out the South Pacific Games title in Apia earlier this month.
Halftime 36-22 (19-11)
Threequarter 56-35 (20-13)
Fulltime 78-46 (22-11)
Australia 78 (N Porter 16, E Randall 13, A Poto 12) defNew Zealand 46 (A Marino 15, J McCormack 10)at the Edgar Centre, DunedinCrowd: 1200