Is it time to believe in these Australian Opals?

The Australian Opals were building over the first three games of the 2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup.

After a rocky start to the tournament against France, there was renewed hope beginning to spring forward off the back of impressive wins over Mali and Serbia.

That hope was being handled somewhat cautiously by Opals fans across the nation due to obvious weaknesses in the team, highlighted by their struggles when opposition defences apply pressure up the court.

That cautious optimism was blown out of the water, however, by a performance for the ages on Monday night.

Facing a previously undefeated Canada team, Australia had it all to play for knowing a win would lock in their spot in the quarterfinals.

In a game that went down to the wire and was as physical of a game that one could imagine as the refs put their whistles away, Australia eventually came out on top with a memorable 75-72 win.

The Sydney Superdome crowd was hanging on every play and loudly appreciated the defensive mindset this Opals squad displayed in being able to claw their way back into the contest after a shaky first quarter.

As the crowd got louder, you could sense the belief growing within the arena that this Opals team is the real deal and capable of going head-to-head with the best teams in the tournament.

You could talk about many moments throughout what was arguably the game of the tournament so far, but when Sami Whitcomb delivered a pinpoint pass to a driving Ezi Magbegor – who finished the play with a lay-up – with 3 minutes and 50 seconds remaining in the first half, everything changed.

Prior to that, Australia found themselves in a 14-point hole, 33-19, but that bucket got Magbegor going and also showed the rest of the team that attacking the basket, whether that’s driving hard for a lay-up or going up for an offensive rebound with purpose, was the only way to get the result they so desperately wanted.

Ezi Magbegor’s work near the basket on both sides of the ball proved critical for the Opals against Canada. (AP: Mark Baker)

That lay-up set off a chain of events that may have just changed the course of the Opals’ World Cup campaign.

In the final 3:50 of the first half, Australia kept Canada scoreless while piling on 19 points of their own and it was Steph Talbot who put the team on her back with relentless attack and effort.

After Magbegor’s lay-up it was absolute chaos on the court in the very best way possible for Australia, as the Opals sensed the moment and rose to the occasion.

Captain Tess Madgen and Darcee Garbin delivered vital triples, while Talbot was dishing out dimes like there was no tomorrow.

For all of Australia’s offensive dominance in that game-changing final 3:50 of the first half, it was their defence that kickstarted it all as Canada was forced into shot clock violations and turnovers as the Opals discovered that fine line between chaos and composure on both ends of the court.

For all the momentum that the 19-0 run to finish the first half brought the Opals, they relinquished a five-point half-time lead as Canada responded with a 16-5 run of their own to start the third quarter.

As things started to get tougher for Australia, it was none other than Lauren Jackson who answered the call with a timely triple with three minutes left in the third quarter.

With superstar Bec Allen forced to miss the game due to a rib injury sustained in the final minutes of Sunday’s win over Serbia, it was up to Talbot, Magbegor and Whitcomb to take up the slack and that’s exactly what they did.

An Australian Opals basketballer extends her hands as she lets the ball go for a pass as a teammate watches.
In the absence of the injured Bec Allen, players like Sami Whitcomb stepped up for the Opals against Canada.(AP: Mark Baker)

All three played off each other to perfection, allowing one another to shine in their own role and share the load, not just on offence, but defensively too.

Whitcomb (four steals) and Talbot were able to play extra aggressive defence on the perimeter knowing that they had a red-hot Magbegor (five blocks) behind them ready to protect the basket if their player did get by them.

This game truly showcased just how important Magbegor is to the Opals program, and it says a lot about her character to be able to bounce back and have one of her best games as an Opal after being dropped from the starting line-up.

In a starring role, Magbegor did it all on both ends of the court on her way to recording a team-high 16 points, to go along with 7 rebounds, 5 blocks and 3 assists.

An aggressive Magbegor is one of the biggest keys to Australia’s chances of competing for a medal. When she is making quick decisions to cut to the basket, fight tooth and nail for rebounds and swatting away shots on the defensive end like she’s spiking a volleyball, Magbegor becomes the complete player.

Her inconsistencies at times have frustrated fans, but it would be remiss not to mention that she is still – despite all of her international experience – the youngest player on the Opals squad at just 23.

After what was a tough game against Serbia for Whitcomb in terms of handling the basketball as she committed seven turnovers, she bounced back like all great players do and was much more steadfast in protecting the basketball against Canada, turning the ball over just once.

Talbot’s influence on the game and sharing of the ball-handling duties also contributed to helping Whitcomb cut down on her turnovers as the pair combined for 14 of Australia’s 22 assists.

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