The Opals, winless after two pool games, needed to beat Puerto Rico by 25 points to advance to the next round and, after trailing at quarter time, produced one of the great comebacks to win by 27 points, 96-69.
Australia needed a hero and it was dual Olympian Mariana Tolo who stepped up, coming off the bench to top score with 26 points plus 17 rebounds, four assists and a steal in an MVP display.
The 32-year-old was one rebound away from a double-double at half time and her team mates came with her after the main break as the Opals won the second half 51-25.
Australia will take on the USA in the quarter finals.
An elated Tolo was bursting with pride for her team post game.
“I’m just so proud of how we fought tonight. We didn’t come out and start how we wanted to, even to just fight back in that second half and really take control of the game was unbelievable,’’ she said.
“Credit to Puerto Rico, they played hard the whole game. They came here and unfortunately didn’t get a win but you could tell they really wanted one tonight.
“For us, we were a bit bigger than them and we took advantage of that which meant coming inside to me, Cayla (George) and Ezi (Magbegor) and I think that was the difference in the game.
“It’s a fresh start now, we’re into the quarter finals and anything can happen.”
Monday night’s victory was the Opals highest score an at Olympics since 2008.
George came alive in the second half and finished with the superb stat line of 19 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Skipper Jenna O’Hea sunk 15 points (including four triples) while floor general Leilani Mitchell teamed her 12 points with six assists and Magbegor added 10 points in 17 minutes court time.
It was all Puerto Rico in the first quarter as it burst out of the blocks to an 8-0 start, in contrast the Opals missed their first four shots before Mitchell knocked down consecutive triples to get the Aussies underway.
The opposition, playing with energy and intent, got it back out to five before Tolo’s first points of the game were an early sign of what was to come for the veteran.
Tolo would score eight points, matched by Jennifer O’Neill for Puerto Rico who won their first quarter of the tournament taking a 24-22 advantage into the first break
A Jazmon Gwathmey three instantly put the opposition further ahead just seconds into the second quarter.
George and Magbegor would land their first points of the game, a triple from O’Hea then Tolo making both free throws reduced the margin to one.
Tessa Lavey, who didn’t play last game against China, checked in and it was her first points in Tokyo which sent Australia ahead 35-33 to cap an 8-0 run for the Opals.
Dominating in the low post, Tolo would double the Opals buffer. Pamela Rosado broke her country’s scoring drought before Gwathmey levelled the scores with three and a half minutes to go.
Bec Allen hit the scoreboard for the first time to give the Opals an edge and while Tolo would add to her first-half total of 18 points, Gwathmey added four of her own to reduce the margin to a point at the main break.
George got things going for the Opals at the start of the third as the Opals extended their lead but as they flirted with a double-figure advantage, with the equation in mind, Puerto Rico would have an answer.
Australia would get out to a 68-52 lead at three quarter time then produce a gutsy, thrilling last quarter of basketball to surpass the needed margin to move into the finals and keep their dreams of a Tokyo Olympic medal alive.
Australia 96 (Tolo 26 points, 17 rebounds, George 19 points, O’Hea 15 points) defeated Puerto Rico 69 (Gwathmey 26 points, Rosado 13, O’Neill 12)
The Last Word with Shelley Gorman, triple Olympian (1988, 1996, 2000)
“What a game! So much on the line. Opals started slowly lacking defensive communication and relying on their outside offence, staying in the game by hitting some big threes.
We started the third quarter with defensive pressure, created turnovers and ran the floor getting the ball inside. So proud of the girls staying persistent, fighting hard and playing together in true Opals style!”