The countdown to a home World Cup is well and truly on, and we've now seen the Opals in action again. The team completed the FIBA WWC qualifying tournament last weekend, so what did we make of the new look Opals and their campaign in Serbia? Let's take a closer look at each of the games in Belgrade.
BRAZIL (Won 65-52)
Although they got the win, it wasn't the prettiest of games with both teams committing a large number of turnovers with the rust of a long international lay-off clearly evident.
Brazil's style of game was erratic, a fast pace with not a lot of composure being shown. Unfortunately, it seemed that the Opals' fell into the trap of playing a similar game - a style that doesn't suit them. Australia are capable of playing fast with the majority of the team having the ability to run the floor, however, in this game it worked against them. Dropping to Brazil's level, there were increased errors and offensive sets were not run efficiently.
On a positive note, looking at how many turnovers they forced Brazil into, it was encouraging to see the Opals looking strong defensively, getting in the passing lanes, blocking shots and having active hands. Considering the difference in experience and skill level that separates the two teams, the Opals would have liked to have a more dominant performance against Brazil, however this Australia team was incorporating new players and adjusting to a new style of play without Liz Cambage or an equivalent in the team. For a first hit out together since a disappointing Olympics campaign they appeared happy to get a win under their belt and get rid of a few cobwebs in their first match of the tournament.
SERBIA (Lost 71-78)
The highly anticipated game against the home team Serbia was a tough fight and one that the Opals can learn a lot from. From the get go, it was obvious Australia had already made improvements from their first match against Brazil. A reduction in turnovers and better ball movement was evident, and it paid off. The offence flowed more effectively than the previous game and every player on the court became an offensive threat, rather than having to rely on just one person.
Defensively, however, the Opals put themselves at a disadvantage early on with both Alanna Smith and Cayla George getting two fouls in the first quarter. This is an issue that needs to be addressed moving forward as without the likes of Liz Cambage on the side, the Opals can't be losing their remaining bigs to foul trouble, especially so early on in the game.
Speaking of fouls, the controversial ejection of Steph Talbot showed us again that the Opals are struggling on the point guard front. Without Leilani Mitchell and Steph Talbot, they don't have an experienced, true point guard running the show. Sami Whitcomb can play point, but is probably better use in the two spot.
The Opals were tested within the backcourt with Serbia applying physical, full court pressure, highlighting a weakness in the Opals team. On the positive side young guards, Maddy Rocci, Shyla Heal and Kristy Wallace (despite not making it on the court this game) were included in this qualifying tournament team as they gained invaluable experience that will hopefully allow the Opals to have reliable and confident ball handlers moving forward.
KOREA (Won 79-61)
Considering Korea and Serbia had such a close finish in their game, it wasn't a walk up certainty that Australia would be winners in their match up. And from the very beginning the Opals looked focused and had clearly regrouped after their earlier loss.
The selflessness of the team shined through with plenty of extra passes being made with every team member getting their hands on the ball. This new Opals outfit looked very different with ball in hand to the one we saw in Tokyo, this team brimming with offensive confidence. The ability to move the ball inside and out to find the best looks highlighted the depth of the team, with almost every player a threat from deep and on the drive.
Although it was great for the Opals' morale to finish the tournament on a win, it was still clear that there is plenty more work to be done in the defensive end. At times, the team had lapses that allowed Korea to make a comeback almost solely through three pointers. On top of this, Australia finished the game with 19 turnovers, another indication that the team needs to find a way to deal with pressure more efficiently.
Overall, this tournament highlighted great promise, not only for the next generation of Opals, but also for this current team who proved to be effective even without star centre Liz Cambage. Not to mention, this tournament they were missing Ezi Magbegor, a key player and an essential presence inside. The overall attitude of the Opals seemed a lot more positive than we saw in Tokyo, and it was evident in their games that the squad had had all bought in to doing what was best for the team.
After a disappointing performance at the recent Olympics, the team and coach Sandy Brondello have clearly come together to redefine the Opals. Prioritising effort and intensity on defence - whilst a little inconsistent in terms of results - gave the team an added boost of energy and saw them look a lot more aggressive.
Players like Bec Allen and Steph Talbot used their length well this tournament, getting steals, locking down players and even blocking shots. Bec Allen wasn't only a menace defensively, but we finally got to see her hit shots from deep, something we missed out on in Tokyo. This is a credit to Sandy Brondello and the team for creating better opportunities to get her those looks.
It's also clear that if this tournament told us anything, it was that incorporating Sami Whitcomb into the Opals line up and making her captain was the right call. The skipper earned herself All-Star honours for the tournament, leading her team in words and actions.
This team has the potential to be very successful at the upcoming FIBA Women's World Cup, with a home crowd behind them and more preparation time in the coming months, and they appear well set to compete for a medal on home court.
Days until the 2022 FIBA Women's World Cup in Sydney: 217
USA, Australia, Korea, Serbia, Russia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, China, France, Japan, Nigeria, Belgium.