Opals star Lauren Jackson marked her return to the court in an emphatic fashion, dropping a game-high 22 points and nine rebounds (six offensive rebounds) in a vintage display from the four-time Olympian.
A plucky New Zealand side stuck with the world number two ranked Australian in a scrappy opening, before an 11-0 run to start the second half saw the Opals push the lead into double-figures, where it would remain.
Opals co-captain Jackson was well supported by Natalie Hurst, who excelled in the starting point guard role, finishing with 12 points and five rebounds. Marianna Tolo provided scoring punch off the bench, finishing with eight points.
Opals Head Coach Brendan Joyce said to win in New Zealand was a great result for his team, praising their ability to take the game away from the hosts in the third quarter.
“We expected a really tough game when you play New Zealand at home and we go one,” Joyce said.
“We really moved ahead in the third quarter. We looked to get the ball inside a bit more and use that size advantage over New Zealand, and we certainly did that.”
“I was really happy with the open looks we got. Our three-point percentage wasn’t great, (3-of-18 at 17%) but I still think we took good shots and that’s a positive because when we start knocking those down the spread in the score looks a lot different.”
Joyce praised the performance of the returning Jackson, also the team’s defensive pressure in the defining third quarter.
“Extremely happy with Lauren’s performance, but not surprised by it,” Joyce said.
“She so talented and mentally tough I’m not surprised that she played that way.”
“Laura Hodges did a great job shutting down Antonia Edmondson, and Nat Hurst’s pressure up the floor and Jenni Screen’s pressure up the floor opened it up for a couple of easy buckets.
“I thought that’s where the game was won.”
It was the Jackson show in the first half, with the 32-year-old scoring seven of the Opals’ first nine points for the game, finishing with 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting from the field.
Jackson was keeping the Opals in the ascendency in a scrappy opening as the Tall Ferns went about upsetting the visitors’ rhythm. A four-point quarter time lead was doubled ahead of the main break, with the Opals holding a 34-26 advantage.
Eager to kill off the contest, the Opals lifted a gear to start the second half, going on an 11-0 led by the dynamic play of Hurst, who sparked the visitors into action.
This saw the lead balloon out to 16 points heading into the final quarter as the likes of co-captain Jenni Screen (five) and Laura Hodges (four) hitting open teammates, combining for nine assists.
With the game opening up in the late stages, the Tall Ferns rallied after the lead blew out beyond 20 points, to reduce the final margin to 16 points.
The focus now turns to Sunday’s Game Two, with the Opals eager to continue their dominance of their trans-Tasman rivals in front of what is expected to be a packed out AIS Arena in Canberra.
Tickets are available through Ticketek at www.ticketek.com.au or call 132 849.
ABC TV will be broadcasting the game LIVE around Australia, with coverage of the Opals beginning at 2:00pm (AEST) and the Boomers at 4:00pm on ABC1.
For all the latest from the Jayco Australian Opals and Australian Boomers in the lead-up to the 2013 FIBA Oceania Championships visit the Basketball Australia website at www.basketball.net.au.
Jayco Australian Opals 66-50 New Zealand Tall Ferns
Points: Jackson 22; Hurst 12; Tolo 8; Hodges 7; Snell 5; Screen 4; Zavecz 3; Wilson, Madgen 2; Francis 1.