Australia’s Opals are a win away from a massive FIBA World Cup final against the mighty United States, but first need to get past China in tonight’s semi-final in Sydney.
The Opals have won their last five games at the World Cup, including a thumping win over Belgium in last night’s quarter-final, to guarantee they’ll be playing for a medal.
But to ensure that’s either gold or silver up for grabs, they’ll need to continue their revenge run from the Tokyo Olympics.
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The Aussies’ two group stage losses at the Games came against Belgium (already avenged) and China, the latter in extremely controversial fashion after a last-second foul.
The legendary Lauren Jackson had 12 points in 14 minutes against the Belgians as her remarkable comeback to the world stage at 41 years old continued.
Australia’s starting five was the same as the five against Belgium: Steph Talbot, Ezi Magbegor, Marianna Tolo, Sara Blicavs and Samantha Whitcomb.
An extremely loud crowd, thanks to a partisan Chinese contingent, watched a tight first quarter that saw the Opals lead 17-13, powered by Talbot, who had six points and four rebounds.
Bec Allen returned to the court late in the first quarter after a rib injury forced her to either miss, or barely feature in, previous games.
Boos rained down from the Chinese fans on Lauren Jackson as she shot two free throws with 0.2 seconds left in the quarter.
A 13-6 and 17-8 run to open the second quarter then saw China take control, with the Opals’ shots refusing to fall – other than from Whitcomb, who had 13 points at the half. The visitors led 36-30 at the break.
Magbegor scored the Opals’ first eight points of the second half. But poor free throw shooting hurt the hosts, with Whitcomb missing three consecutive chances, with China going up the other way and nailing a three.
Chinese giant Han Xu had five blocks less than halfway through the third quarter, matching the World Cup single-game record.
The Opals’ defence was keeping them in the game with what commentator Jenni Screen called “selfish” shots coming at the other end. They had the final shot of the third term and plenty of time, but only flinged up a desperation three that missed badly, to trail 44-47.
Xu had 17 points to lead all comers plus and seven rebounds.
The Opals’ defence continued to shine, forcing two shot-clock violations in the first half of the fourth quarter; then a steal and fast-break lay-up by Whitcomb saw the scores level at 51-all with 5:17 to play.
After a travelling call on China, Talbot put the Aussies up for the first time since the opening quarter before Xu levelled things again.
Tonight’s winner will face the USA in Saturday’s gold medal match, after the WNBA-star packed defending champions thumped Canada in their semi-final 83-43.
Australia lost to the USA in the 2018 World Cup final. The Americans haven’t lost a World Cup game since the 2006 semi-finals when they were stunned by Russia, with Australia beating the Russians to win gold.