The Australian Opals have beaten Japan in the first of a three-game friendly series which will help decide the final squad for a home World Cup in September.
Young guns Shyla Heal and Jade Melbourne shone in the absence of Australia’s overseas stars, powering the new-look Opals outfit to a 72-66 win at Sydney Olympic Park on Friday night.
Picked up by the Seattle Storm after a break-out season in the WNBL, Melbourne made the most of her limited minutes with nine of her 11 points coming in the final term as she led the Opals’ comeback.
Heal, the daughter of Boomers great Shane and who was cut by the WNBA’s Chicago Sky after just five matches, was among the Opals’ best with 10 points, while captain Cayla George – one of only three players from the Olympic squad to feature in the friendly – led her team with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
This was a very different-looking Opals lineup to the one that lost to the USA in the quarter-finals at last year’s Tokyo Games. With captain Jenna O’Hea and Katie Ebzery retired and some of Australia’s biggest names tied to playing commitments in the United States and Europe, Sara Blicavs and Melbourne Boomers stalwarts Tess Madgen and George were the only three Olympians on the floor.
Madgen, coming off a WNBL championship with the Melbourne Boomers, said the win was an example of the strength and depth of the Opals squad.
We’ve done a lot of work on culture, and I think it’s really showing through, she said. We want to be a really tough defensive team, and we had to do that tonight.
The Opals were dominant off the glass and from outside out the arc as they built a first half lead. Darcee Garbin, playing in the green and gold for the first time on home soil, iced the Opals’ first three-pointer right on the buzzer, before Heal, Rebecca Cole and George all followed suit.
Led by captain George, the Opals were on top in the rebound count 22-9 at half-time and made it count at the offensive end, with Madgen driving to the basket to give the Opals a six-point lead into half-time.
It was a much closer contest in the second half as Japan, led by captain Maki Takada and shooting guard Nanako Todo, fought back to a five-point lead at three-quarter-time.
Melbourne played every minute of the final term, and made every one of them count. Blicavs pulled the home team back into the lead with three baskets in a row before a driving lay-up from the 19-year-old Seattle Storm recruit pulled the lead out to four.
Melbourne doubled down with a stylish step-back jump shot from outside the arc before icing the game with two free throws. George was outstanding in the final term, doubling her rebound tally to finish with one offensive and nine defensive rebounds and snuff out any chance of a Japan comeback.
Madgen expects another tough challenge when they return to Sydney Olympic Park on Sunday before playing in Newcastle on Tuesday.
They’re going to be disruptive – it’s the way they play, she said. We just have to stay poised – when we get the ball moving through hands, we get any shot we want.
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