The Opals trailed by as much as 11 points at the seven-minute mark of the final term before fighting back through Ezi Magbegor (15 points, 4 rebounds, 2 steals) and Katie Ebzery (9 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists). Captain Jenna O’Hea (11 points) did what she does best – lead and shoot threes – to give her side a chance of victory with seconds to play.
With scores level, a foul was called on Cayla George, her fifth sending her out of the game, with 0.6 on the clock. Centre Yueru Li went to the line, making both her shots to confirm a famous Chinese victory.
It’s the first time Australia has lost its opening two games of an Olympic campaign since 1984.
The Opals have one pool game remaining, Puerto Rico on Monday, and must win by a sizeable margin and rely on other favourable results to advance to the sudden-death quarter finals.
Australian coach Sandy Brondello said it was a disappointing night for her team who mounted a gutsy comeback.
“Obviously a hard-fought game and another tough loss for us. I was really proud of the girls and how we fought back in that fourth quarter,’’ she said.
“The third quarter, obviously we couldn’t score, and that was a bit of a struggle and we dug a hole for ourselves. We clawed our way back and Jenna is a shooter who is capable of that. We didn’t shoot the ball great tonight but when we needed to, we shot the ball pretty good. Jenna gave us a chance.
“Really proud of how we fought back and it’s just unfortunate that the game was decided on a call like that at the end.
“We have to regroup and our focus is on Puerto Rico and hopefully some other results go our way.”
Veteran Marianna Tolo echoed her coach’s sentiments.
“If you look at China’s scorers you can see a spread there and anytime there is that it’s hard to defend, hard to stop and that was our challenge tonight,’’ she said.
“I thought we did a great job fighting back in that fourth quarter but it just wasn’t enough to put us over the edge. It’s so disappointing because we came so close and fought so hard.
“It’s not over for us yet. We have to fight even harder in our next game and have a point to prove.”
It was a fast start from both teams with George putting Australia on the board in the opening seconds of the game.
Coming off the bench, Leilani Mitchell made an instant impact with a triple on the way to eight points for the quarter. Alanna Smith hit the court in her Olympic debut while guards Ebzery and Wang Siyu clashed heads and were treated on the sidelines.
The Opals handled the ball cleanly but were being beaten by China at both ends, trailing 27-19 at the first break.
Australia clawed back from a 10-point deficit early in the second term to level the scores at half time.
George and Ebzery made dents in that double-figure margin before Magbegor got it down to five then three.
After missing the opening game against Belgium with a foot concern, Steph Talbot was forced from the court in pain and headed to the rooms in tears.
Sara Blicavs checked in for her first Olympic minutes and scored almost immediately, putting the Opals ahead 32-31. Her energy and crashing of boards were evident as Australia lifted its intensity, started getting rebounds and were back in the game thanks to a 15-2 run.
O’Hea landed a trademark triple before Mengran Sun responded with her own to make it 38 all.
The third term saw China get out to a game-high 11-point advantage through their experienced heads while scoring dried up for the Opals who were restricted to just 9 points – Magbegor scoring almost half of them.
George knocked down a triple to start the final term on a promising note before the Chinese went on a scoring run. Back-to-back baskets from Tolo helped spark an Aussie fightback.
China 76 (Wang 20 points, Li 12) defeated Australia 74 (Magbegor 15 points, O’Hea 11)
The Last Word with Rachael Sporn, 3x Olympic medallist (1996, 2000, 2004)
“It was a heartbreaker. I just thought the fightbacks were so courageous because we could’ve fallen in a heap and China could have got the momentum and kept it going but we were so determined and that’s what an Opal is - those fightbacks, that’s who we are. That ending wasn’t justified for the epic game it was going to be. I wanted it to go into overtime because I felt it deserved to.”