Opals fall to USA, win silver medal

Opals fall to USA, win silver medal

THE Opals failed to break their silver spell early this morning after going down to the US for the third consecutive Olympics, writes James Dampney for AAP.

[Box score] [Photo gallery]

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In a heartbreaking end to their Beijing campaign, Lauren Jackson and her team never really got out of first gear and were belted 92-65 in the gold medal final.

US captain and enforcer Lisa Leslie contained Opals forwards Jackson and Suzy Batkovic, who were unable to punch through the defence and were forced into making costly errors.

Jackson did not post a point until midway through the second quarter and even then it came from free throws, the second of which she missed. Jackson finished with 20 points, but all of them came too late.

Veteran forward Batkovic had a tough night, repeatedly missing from under the net and failing to get over Leslie and Tina Thompson.

She wasn't alone - Kristi Harrower also failed to turn opportunities into points and had a disappointing end to a stellar tournament.

The one shining light was Belinda Snell, who put on 15 points in the first half but had no support from the Opals' bigger names.

The Opals appeared rattled from the tip-off, failing to make the US pay for some early misses. When the US found their form, the Opals couldn't go with them and went to the half-time break trailing 47-30.

The Opals and the US were undefeated in their pool matches and it was only a matter of time before they collided in the big one. But the long-awaited fireworks between the two best teams in women's basketball failed to ignite.

While the Opals are ranked almost equal in class, they only have a collection of silver to show for it. The fact remains the US has always prevailed in the games that matter. Leslie and her team denied the Opals gold in 2000 and 2004 and last night's crushing win gives them bragging rights for another four years.

There was the 2006 world championship win over Russia but the Opals could take little comfort from that. They knew they had not beaten the US to win the honours in Brazil and Beijing was supposed to be their shot at redemption.

The scene was set for fierce Olympics at the Diamond Ball match three weeks ago, when the Opals accused the US of playing dirty after being narrowly beaten. Jackson warned there would be "broken bones" if the tactics were repeated, but last night the Opals lacked the skill or aggression to deliver on that promise.

To say the Opals' preparation for last night's final was disrupted this week would be an understatement. The loss of playmaker and vice-captain Penny Taylor in the third quarter of last Tuesday night's qualifier was a severe setback, but she fought to prove her fitness and bravely played through the pain last night.

The Wukesong Basketball Gymnasium was transformed into a cauldron last night, with the bronze medal playoff between China and Russia getting the sellout crowd pumped up for the final. Russia denied the home team a medal, winning in convincing style 94-81.

Dream Team star Kobe Bryant watched his compatriots stroll to victory and will almost certainly give the US a clean sweep in basketball when he takes on Spain in the men's final this afternoon.

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OPALS V USA preview

[
LIVE STATS] It was the match-up everybody had expected and wanted, and on Saturday night, it will happen. The two best teams in women's basketball, the United States and Australia, will play off for the Olympic gold medal after both managed to safely navigate their way through the semi-finals last night, writes Michael Cowley for Fairfax.

2006 World Champion Opal Jenny Whittle thinks the Opals can win

The Opals, playing without injured forward Penny Taylor, will need to be sharper than they were against the Chinese when they take on the United States, but they did what they needed to do against the team coached by former mentor Tom Maher, and came away with a comfortable 90-56 victory.

The Opals' medical staff took the option of resting Taylor from the semi-final after she rolled her ankle in the quarter-final clash with the Czech Republic on Tuesday, and despite still looking proppy on the injured ankle, the Opals are confident Taylor will be ready to go against the Americans, and the Australians will need her.

It will be the third successive time the two teams have met in an Olympic gold medal game, and sadly for the Opals they have won silver on the previous two occasions, losing 76-54 in Sydney then 74-63 in Athens four years later.

The world champions - they won that title in Brazil in 2006 - will be hoping it's third time lucky against the American this time around.

With Talyor camped on the end of the bench, the Opals started Jenni Screen in her place, and their starting five did not appear to lack any cohesion.

What they were missing was accuracy, hitting just two of their first eight shots, and as a result were unable to break free of the Chinese, the home team sending their fans into a frenzy as they led 6-4 early.

But an 8-0 run gave the Opals the lead, and everything appeared to be going well until guard Tully Bevilaqua injured her neck and shoulder when he collided with Lauren Jackson.

After some treatment she managed to shrug off the blow and the Opals had their full compliment of players - minus Taylor of course - ready to go.

After an uninspiring opening term, Australia, having hit just five of 20 shots, they still managed to be in front, but only by 13-11, and because of the closeness the boisterous home crowd was still a factor in the game.

But the Opals looked much stronger at both ends of the court in second period and a 12-2 run to finish the term saw them outscore China 21-7 for the quarter and carry a 16-point lead into the main break, 34-16.

Opals coach Jan Stirling was able to rotate her troops during the third term and her bench continued the job of the starters, maintaining their solid lead through the term, and turning for the last quarter in front 57-39.

All that needed to be determined from the final quarter was how lareg the final margin would be.

It looked for a while like the dream match-up may be in some doubt when Russia pushed the United States for a long way in the opening semi-final of the night.

The Americans were more than aware of the capabilities of Russia to cause an upset last night. At the 2006 world championships, Russia stunned the USA beating them 75-68 in the semi-finals, and ending their hopes of three successive world titles. The Russians then went on to lose the final to the Australians 91-74.

They led the United States for much of the first half, then again until midway through the third quarter when finally the defending Olympic champions asserted some authority, broke clear, set up a winning lead, and were able to coast home, 67-52.

The United States will be shooting for their sixth gold medal in the past seven have Olympics, only missing out in Barcelona in 1992 when they took bronze behind the Unified Team.

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Semi: OPALS crush CHINA
21 August 2008

[Box score][Picture gallery] THE Opals turned into granite early today, with vice-captain Penny Taylor overcoming a badly sprained ankle to inspire her team to a gold-medal showdown against their despised US rivals, writes James Dampney for AAP.

[Watch mulimedia gallery][See FIBA's photo gallery][Snapshot: Suzy Batkovic]

She wasn't needed off the bench, but Taylor's presence alone lifted the team to a 90-56 win over China in front of a deafening home crowd.

The Chinese fans at Beijing's Wukesong Basketball Stadium were stunned when Taylor was named to play. They had hoped her loss would rattle the Australians and boost their medal tally.

Instead, the Opals used her courage to win a place in the final, which they play against Lisa Leslie and her team of all-stars for the gold medal at 12am (AEST) on Sunday.

It now seems certain that Taylor will be there.

It was only on Tuesday night that Taylor collapsed on the court, her Olympic dream as damaged as the vertical ligaments in her right ankle.

But the playmaker fought around the clock over the next two days to prove her fitness, packing ice around the ankle every two hours in a bid to reduce the swelling.

Taylor's injury was compounded by captain Lauren Jackson's shock announcement that she was also suffering a long-term ankle complaint and had been playing with pain-killing injections since landing in Beijing.

Jackson has played with lower leg injuries for most of her career and the latest twinge did not diminish her role as the Opals' enforcer last night.

She set the tone straight after tip-off, stealing the ball and racing to the basket untouched. Jackson was ferocious in defence, repeatedly repelling the Chinese juggernaut and coming up with the ball when points seemed certain.

Kristi Harrower's class shone through again, with a second-quarter play that saw her sprint down the right-hand sign of the court before firing a bullet pass to Lauren Jackson, who delivered it to Rohanee Cox to finish. The Opals led 34-18 at the half-time break.

The Opals continued their scoring spree in the second half, with Belinda Snell and Suzy Batkovic turning what should have been an ear-splitting home crowd into a game of Chinese whispers.

In the other semi-final played last night, the US overcame Russia 67-52 to advance to the gold-medal final. They had a gold-plated cheer squad in the stands led by Dream Team dynamos Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, who got on their feet every time the women landed points.

Since the Olympic flame entered the Bird's Nest two weeks ago today, women's basketball fans have been waiting for an Australia-US showdown and now they have it.

Both the Opals and the US were undefeated in the preliminary rounds, with Russia the only other serious contender.

The Opals have slowly worked towards their best form over the tournament, with their most impressive win coming against Russia, when they turned around a 16 point deficit to win by 20 points.

China's form was also impressive in the pool games, suffering only one loss, to the US.

The Chinese had two secret weapons that might have derailed the Opals' journey to the gold medal final. One was the 197cm Chen Nan; the other Tom Maher, the former Australian and New Zealand coach who took his successful playbook to Beijing in 2005.

But neither had what it took to beat the Opals, who set out to add gold to their collection of silver in the early hours of Sunday.

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PREVIEW: OPALS v CHINA

THE Opals head into today's semi-final against the host nation knowing they may to have to beat China without injured vice-captain Penny Taylor, writes James Dampmey for AAP.

Australia's semi-final tips off at 12.15am tonight, following the first semi-final between Russia and the United States.

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Penny Taylor has been receiving around-the-clock treatment on her sprained ankle and team doctor Scott Burne insists she is some chance of playing against China.


But it would be a mighty gamble to use a player that simply must play in the gold medal match if the Opals are able to get past China and reach the final.

The Chinese women have been easybeats in major competitions for more than a decade, yet they have been a surprise packet in Beijing under former Opals coach Tom Maher.

They are in the Olympic semi-finals for the first time since 1992 and are playing with plenty of confidence, but the Opals still should have too much quality, even without Taylor.

The Australians are praying Taylor can recover in time to play some part in the home stretch of the tournament.

"Finger's crossed she'll be fine. She's a strong competitor,'' guard Kristi Harrower said.

"She gets hit so much in a game, every game, and just gets up and plays.

"Her and Lauren (Jackson) are our main players scoring-wise and they just give us so much. Without her it'll be tough, but we've got a great team and have other players that can step up.''

Jackson revealed yesterday she requires ankle surgery herself after the Games, but she has been managed throughout the Olympic campaign and will be ready to take her place in the line-up for the rest of the competition.

If Taylor has to sit out, the likes of Belinda Snell, Jenni Screen and Rohanee Cox are going to have to try to fill the void.

Dr Burne is leading the fight to speed up the recovery process for Taylor, a world-class forward renowned for her toughness.

"Penny's a great girl and she's very strong and very tough,'' Dr Burne said.

"If it's going to happen to anyone, Penny is the right person.

"She's very good and handling the injury very well.''

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Quarter final: Opals outclass Czechs, Taylor injured
19 August 2008

[Box score] The Opals' Olympic gold medal hopes might have crumpled to the floor in the same manner as Penny Taylor's ankle after the Australian vice-captain was injured in the 79-46 quarter-final win over the Czech Republic, writes James Dampney for AAP.

Taylor made a drive to the basket in the opening minute of the second half and fell to the floor, with her right ankle buckling awkwardly underneath her.

See FOXSPORTS.com.au picture gallery ; See FIBA.com's picture gallery ; Watch multimedia gallery

Team medical officer Dr Scott Burne described the injury as a lateral sprain and was hopeful she would play in Thursday's semi-final against China.

But the body language and comments from coach Jan Stirling after the game indicated the gun forward was a long shot to appear in the semi-final and also a potential gold medal match-up with the United States.

"An ankle injury like that, a lot depends on the next 24 hours," she said.

"It does look quite significant at this point in time, but we really don't know.

"If she's not ready to go, that's sport, it happens."

Stirling said other players on the team will simply have to step up to fill Taylor's absence if she is unable to play any further part in Beijing.

But the fact remains that Taylor stands alongside captain Lauren Jackson as one of the team's two most important players and, realistically, someone they can't afford to lose if they are to finally win Olympic gold.

The Opals may just have enough class to get past China without Taylor, but they already concede depth to the American women, even with the MVP of Australia's 2006 world championship victory.

Asked if Australia can win gold without her, a rather glum Stirling replied: "Difficult one. We need to get through the semi first if we have to play the semi without her.

"We probably need our whole group, but stranger things have happened in the game of basketball.

"We're certainly not a one-person team and if she's not to play, it will depend on how we make adjustments to cover her."

The team coped fine without Taylor in the second half, cruising past the Czechs behind Jackson's 17-point, 12-rebound haul and 15 points and nine boards from Snell.

Rohanee Cox, one player who potentially could pick up some of Taylor's scoring slack if she is ruled out, added 10 points.

Dr Burne said there was still a chance Taylor could be fit to face China.

"She's got a fairly typical ankle injury," he said.

"It's not a minor injury but it's not the worst sort of injury that you have.

"She can weight-bare, which is great, and she was able to get to the change room pretty well so we're pretty happy.

"She's tender in the usual spots and there's a bit of swelling, but we're quite hopeful that she'll be able to play next game."

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OPALS v CZECH REPUBLIC: preview

After victories over Belarus, Brazil, Korea, Latvia and Russia the Australian Opals are 5-0 and sit atop Group A ahead of Russia, Belarus and Korea.

In Group B, the United States remain unbeaten and on top while China, Spain and the Czech Republic advance in the 2, 3 and 4 seeds.

Latvia and Brazil were knocked out of Group A and New Zealand and Mali have been knocked out of Group B.

Please find below the program for the Women's Quarter-Finals on Tuesday, 19th August 2008: (ALL TIMES LOCAL; Beijing is 2 hours behind Sydney)

These are must-win games, with the winners advancing to the medal rounds and the losers relegated to fight out fifth to eighth place.

Game 61 (14:30 hours): China vs. Belarus

Game 62 (16:45 hours): Australia vs. Czech Republic (6:45pm AET)

Game 63 (20:00 hours): USA vs. Korea

Game 64 (22:15 hours): Russia vs. Spain

See finals bracket

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Gm 5: Opals bounce back from 16 down to roll Russia
17 August 2008

[Box Score] THE Opals came back in the second half to beat Russia 75-55 and remain on track for another Olympic gold medal showdown with the US.

See picture gallery


Australia dug themselves a 16-point hole late in the second quarter, but showed great composure to reel off a 30-10 third term and turn the game around.

A day after the Boomers overcame the Russian men to ensure their place in the second round, the Opals repeated the feat in a re-match of the 2006 world championship final won by Australia.

The result means the Opals have topped Group A at the end of the preliminary rounds with five straight wins and can't face three-time and defending gold medallists and Group B winners America until the final.

Lauren Jackson shook off a quiet first half to finish equal top-scorer for Australia with Belinda Snell on 16 points, while Penny Taylor orchestrated the second half fight back and had 12 points.

American-born Russian Becky Hammon had 20 points, but only four after halftime.

After a flat start to the tournament, the Russians were extremely impressive in the first half, shutting down the Australians at the defensive end.

The Opals shot a horrible 9-of-39 (23 per cent) from the field over the first two quarters, including just 1-of-12 from three-point territory, to trail 37-25 at the main break.

The Australians led 10-4 early, but the introduction of Hammon sparked the Russians, who reeled off a 13-1 run to end the term for a 19-15 lead at the first break.

A huge block by Russian centre Maria Stepanova on Jackson late in the term signalled their intentions to take the game right up to the Australians.

An 18-10 second period then had the Europeans well on track for victory.

But the Australians were a completely different team after halftime, tying the scores at 41-41 on a three-point play from back-up small forward Rohanee Cox midway through the third quarter.

The Opals then regained the lead on a three-pointer from Jackson and never looked back.

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OPALS v RUSSIA preview:
16 Aug 2008

The Australian women's basketball team believe they are ready to win an Olympic gold medal and plan to make a statement against fellow powerhouse Russia in Beijing tomorrow.

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The Opals' final pool match is by far their biggest test to date and will determine who finishes on top of Group A to avoid playing three-time defending gold medallists America until the final.

The Russians have had a quiet tournament, but they remain unbeaten and will be ready for Australia, who beat them in the gold medal match at the 2006 world championships.

"I think our pool is probably the tougher pool out of the two. Sunday's game is very important for us," point guard Kristi Harrower said.

"We don't want to meet the USA until the gold medal game.

"But also, if we have to play Russia again in the semi-final, hopefully we win on Sunday and take some confidence out of them."

The Opals have worked their way into the tournament nicely.

They didn't play their best basketball but still had too much firepower for Belarus, Brazil and Korea.

They overcame a strong first half from Latvia to record a fourth straight win in their last start behind a 30-point haul to Lauren Jackson.

The Latvians led by seven points in the second quarter before the Opals hit top gear after the main break.

"I think (against Latvia) we were actually tested," Harrower said."It's probably been the first time we've been down by nearly double digits.

"Latvia are a great team but we knew if we went out in the third quarter and played our game we'd be okay.

"We just keep going and going and teams can't keep up with us."

Latvian coach Ainars Zvirgzdins has faced Australia and Russia and believes the Opals have the edge.

"Australia's one of the best teams in the world and they will probably be in the final," he said.

"I think Australia looks better (than Russia). They are good tactically both offensively and defensively.

"Russia's team right now have problems as far as psychology."

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Gm 4: Jackson heats up as Opals scorch Latvia
15 August 2008

[Box Score] Lauren Jackson produced easily her best basketball of the Olympic Games today to steer the Opals to a 96-73 victory over Latvia in Beijing, writes James Dampney for AAP.

The Australian superstar scored an effortless 30 points, including five three-pointers, to keep the Opals undefeated in their best game of the campaign.

See FIBA's Olympic site

In just the sort of contest Australia needed ahead of their final group match against Russia on Sunday and then the medal rounds, Latvia pushed them in the first half before a scorching 35-18 third quarter swung the game the Opals' way.

Jackson was effective in Australia's three previous games, but was missing some of her usual spark. She was struggling a little offensively after coming into the Games still overcoming a minor ankle problem.

But today she showed just why she is considered the world's best female player, running rings around the Latvians in an encouraging display ahead of some tougher challenges ahead.

Suzy Batkovic and Penny Taylor were also prominent for Australia, while European star Anete Jekabsone-Zogota had 13 points for the Latvians.

Australia missed their first five shots, but weren't made to pay.

Both teams soon settled down and traded baskets before a running banked three-pointer from Latvia's Gunta Basko right on the quarter-time buzzer drew them within one point at the first break, 19-18.

The Europeans started the second term on fire, nailing seven quick points to surge to a 25-19 lead.

Australia were struggling a little on the offensive end apart from Batkovic, who kept the Opals in the contest.

Latvia's lead stretched to seven on a three-pointer by Ieva Kublina before Jackson took over.

She hit two free-throws and a three-pointer either side of another shot beyond the arc from Belinda Snell to get Australia back in the lead.

She added another two triples and a lay-up before the quarter finished for a 17-point haul at halftime in Australia's 41-38 lead.

The Opals then blew Latvia away in the third term, with Jackson scoring 11 for the quarter, including consecutive threes to end the period that gave them a match-winning 76-56 lead.

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Preview: OPALS v LATVIA

The Opals are now 3-0 with previous victories against Korea (90-62), Belarus (83-64) and Brazil (80-65).

Australian coach Jan Stirling remains conservative about her team’s gold medal chances.

“I’ve been speaking to (USA head coach) Anne Donovan and she and I agree that Russia are one of the form teams,” Stirling said. “So is Latvia on its day.”

“People can perceive this is a two-horse race between the Opals and the US, but I certainly don’t see it that way.”

The Opals take on Latvia tomorrow, with tip off at 1.15pm (Australian time).

“They’re just another European team” Australia’s star WNBA forward Lauren Jackson said.

“They’ve got a great player in Jekabsone-Zogota. Playing them leading up to playing Russia is going to be a really big test for us.”

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Gm 3: Opals turn it up a notch against Korea
13 August 2008

[Box Score] OUR Opals have cruised to a third straight victory in Beijing, knocking over South Korea 90-62 with little fanfare to remain atop Group A.

See the great picture gallery

After an uncharacteristically quiet second half against Brazil in their last match, the Opals were keen to lift a level tonight and they achieved that courtesy of 18-point hauls toPenny Taylor and Suzy Batkovic, backed up by 16 from Lauren Jackson.

Yeonha Beon played a lone hand for the Koreans, leading all scorers with 20 points.

There is still plenty of room left for improvement, but the Opals are doing enough to win and aim to be peaking by the time the medal rounds arrive.

They face Latvia next up on Friday before by far their biggest test of the preliminary rounds, a showdown with Russia on August 17.

The Opals overcame the Russians in the final of the 2006 world championships in Brazil and the Europeans will be keen to get one back over their rivals.

It is also a match that will have a huge bearing on Group A, with the winner almost certain to top their pool and avoid any possibility of a match-up with the mighty United States until the gold medal match.

Just as they did against Brazil, the Opals began well tonight and quickly opened up an early 12-6 lead.

They didn't let up as they tried to work their way into form, taking a comfortable 23-14 advantage into the first break.

Laura Summerton, who is having something of a break-out party in Beijing, was prominent in the opening term as she continues making an important contribution to the team.

There was more of the same in the second quarter, with the Opals piling on 12 unanswered points to open up a 19-point lead, 39-20.

But the Australians are still capable of some worrying lapses and Korea worked their way back into the contest late in the term, just as Brazil had two nights earlier.

Trailing by 14 points at halftime, the Asian nation cut the lead to just eight after the long break following a three-pointer from Yeonha Beon.

But the Australians cranked their defensive pressure right up and were able to shut down their opponents and have few troubles over the closing stages.

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PREVIEW: Opals v Korea

After a disappointing second-half effort in their victory over Brazil on Monday, the Australians know they need to improve and will be keen to take out some frustrations on Korea.

The Koreans have had a solid start to the competition, beating Brazil in overtime and running Russia close before losing 77-72.

But if the Opals are to stamp themselves as genuine gold medal contenders, they need to dominate the Koreans and show they are on the right track.

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Gm 2: OPALS bounce BRAZIL
11 August 2008

[BOX SCORE] The Opals have recorded an 80-65 victory over a new-look Brazilian team in their second game at the Beijing Olympics, writes James Dampney for AAP.

The world champion Australians were far from their best and had some nervous moments in the second half, but they held on down the stretch and overcame quiet games from Lauren Jackson and Penny Taylor to remain undefeated in Group A of the women's basketball tournament.

Floor leader Kristi Harrower and back-up forward Laura Summerton were stand-outs for the Opals, helping to counter-act the foul trouble that kept Jackson to just 10 points.

Brazil are in a transition phase following a raft of high-profile retirements over the past two years, but they took it right up to the Australians on Monday night.

It looked like a one-sided affair when the Opals opened a commanding 23-point lead in the first half.

But they had a worrying lapse with Jackson on the bench in the third term as the Brazilians closed the gap to just eight points.

It continued in the final quarter, with the South Americans again drawing within eight points with less than three minutes remaining, 73-65.

But Jackson and Suzy Batkovic stepped up in the final minutes to ensure the oddly out-of-sync Australians kept their undefeated record intact.

The Brazilians are ranked No.4 in the world and have been one of the world's best teams over the past 15 years, but they are a shadow of the team that won bronze at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

The teams met twice in NSW last month and Australia won both by an average of 30 points, despite Jackson sitting out game two, and more of the same was expected.

But it failed to eventuate in a game that will give the Brazilians plenty of confidence.

Brazil trailed 16-14 midway through the opening term before Australia kicked into top gear.

A 25-4 run spanning the first and second quarters tore the game apart and it seemed to be situation normal for the Australians, who led 50-29 at the main break.

But a different Brazilian team emerged for the third term, which they won 20-11 to put some concern into the Opals' camp.

Australia did enough to win in the fourth quarter, but they will want to improve on Monday night's performance as they get deeper into the tournament.

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Preview: Opals wary but ready for Brazil
By Linda Pearce for
theage.com.au

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HOW refreshing. A coach entering a game declaring that she expects her team to win. The only caveat from Opal Jan Stirling yesterday was that she expects a stronger performance from Brazil tonight than the depleted South Americans could muster in the recent two-game preparatory series in Australia.

From the earliest match on the opening day, the Opals must now adjust to playing the last fixture on day three - at 10.15pm (12.15am eastern time) against an opponent bolstered by the return of its two Women's National Basketball Association players, notably Lauren Jackson's Seattle teammate, centre Kelly Santos. "That will certainly make them a little more difficult than when we played them in Australia," Stirling said. "But we still expect to win."

With a slight cold to forward Penny Taylor the only minor health issue, Australia were untroubled by Belarus in their first Olympic outing as world champions, winning 83-64 without playing terribly well. Debutantes Belarus had upset Brazil to book their place in Beijing, leaving the Brazilians to claim the last vacancy in the Games draw with a come-from-behind win over Cuba in the qualifying tournament.

Here, Brazil lost their opening match 68-62 in overtime against South Korea, having led almost throughout, the experienced Santos top-scoring with 13 points.

Olympic medallists in 1996 and 2000, the Brazilians are rebuilding; while Australia believe their current squad is stronger than that which won the 2006 world title.

Before leaving for China, the Opals beat Brazil 99-62 in Wollongong without Kristi Harrower and 85-62 in Sydney minus Jackson, who had reported soreness in her right ankle after training and was sent for a scan that revealed an anterior impingement.

The captain played almost 29 minutes against Belarus for 18 points and 10 boards, without really dominating, and Stirling insists there is no injury problem. "She's fine at the moment," Stirling said. "She's fine."

So, mostly, is Taylor, although she needs only look in the mirror to view the unwanted souvenir of the nasty warm-up game against the US in Haining.

But revenge must wait, for Brazil are next, as the Opals build towards more testing games than tonight's will be. The team spirit is palpable, with a temporary tattoo of the Australian flag already stuck to the left arm of each squad member, and triple Olympian Harrower hinting there could be more to come.

"Oh, we love our tattoos, absolutely love 'em," smiled Harrower. "Probably by the grand final, we'll have them all over our bodies."

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Gm 1: Opals battle past Belarus in Beijing opener
9 August 2008
By FIBA.com

World champions Australia enjoyed a flying start in their pursuit of a gold medal in China with an 83-64 mauling of Belarus in Saturday’s curtain-raiser for the women’s basketball tournament.

Lauren Jackson scored a game-high 18 points and pulled down 10 rebounds for the 2006 FIBA World Championship-winning Opals, who were congratulated by Australia Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on the edge of the court after the game.

Suzy Batkovic, who is back in the Australia side after three injury-plagued years, contributed 14 points and 12 rebounds.

“This was a significant game for us because we have never played against Belarus,” said Australia coach Jan Stirling.

“I want to congratulate Belarus because this was their first Olympic appearance and this is a learning curve for them. The loss against Team USA at the Diamond Ball prepared us for this game.

“We’re happy with our first game.”

The Aussies played in the Diamond Ball for Women in Haining and suffered a 71-67 defeat to the United States, the team deemed to be their biggest rivals for the gold medal.

Australia stormed out to a 14-6 lead midway through the first quarter and stretched the advantage to 44-28 by half-time.

Belarus, the surprise bronze-medal winners at last year’s EuroBasket Women in Italy, battled and reduced the deficit to 12 on five occasions in the second half, but Anatoly Buyalsky’s team got no closer.

“Even though this is our first game at an Olympics, I am not satisfied with our performance today,” Buyalsky said.

His team shot just 32% (22 of 69) from the field and turned the ball over 19 times.

“We are not in form,” Buyalsky said.

“We lack rhythm. This is due to the fact that we have some players who have struggled with injuries and they’re not in form.

“And we didn’t have a high spirit. I think we could have done much better.”

Penny Taylor, the most valuable player of the World Championship, had 12 points for the Aussies and veteran point guard Kristi Harrower, who is playing in her third Olympics, scored nine, dished out five assists and came up with three steals.

Australia out-rebounded Belarus 48-44.