The United States have drawn first blood in the first of three encounters with Australia across two sports at the Tokyo Games this week. Team USA’s historic unbeaten streak in women’s Olympic basketball continued on Wednesday, as the Americans eased past the Opals in their quarter-final clash.
The defending champions have won the past five Olympic gold medals and have not lost in over 50 matches at the Games, while the Australians only narrowly qualified for the knock-out round after losing their opening two matches in Tokyo. The Opals are three-time Olympic silver medallists, but have now failed to progress to the medal rounds on two consecutive occasions.
Team USA’s comprehensive win, 79-55, gives the nation an early advantage as the two sporting rivals clash three times in just over 24 hours. The men’s basketball teams meet on Thursday afternoon in the semi-finals, before the Matildas face the World Cup-winning US women’s team in the bronze medal football match on Thursday evening.
At Saitama Super Arena, it was clear from early in the first quarter the Australians would face an uphill battle to defeat their long-time foes. A 14-1 run by the Americans midway through the first saw the Opals trailing by double digits at the first break.
Leilani Mitchell led a second quarter fightback, with several clutch three-point shots, but defensive frailties from the Opals saw Team USA build their lead into the half-time break. Brittney Griner and Breanna Stewart were a potent offensive combination for the Americans, adding almost 40 points between them.
While the Opals rallied in the second half, and even won the fourth quarter on the scoreboard, it was too little, too late. The Americans roll on undefeated and consolidated their position as the overwhelming favourite to win the gold medal.
The USA will face Serbia on Friday for a place in the decider and Sue Bird expressed respect for their European opponents.
“We played Serbia fairly recently, in Serbia – whatever year that was, it was 2020, which feels like 10 years ago,” said Bird. “They’re tough. We were actually talking about it before. All of us who played overseas, you always had a Serb on your team. You always had a baller on your team, and it was a Serbian player. They just know how to ball out, they know how to play basketball.”
Australia’s Sara Blicavs said after the defeat: “We had absolutely nothing to lose today and it didn’t go our way at all. I think it wasn’t our finest tournament but I think we’ve got a lot to come back and learn from as well.”
The Opals’ preparations for the tournament were disrupted with the late withdrawal of star player Liz Cambage, who pulled out citing mental health challenges and the Tokyo Olympic bubble environment.
“We didn’t really have a good preparation just with the drama and things that were happening leading into it and then obviously, Liz, who’s arguably the best post player in the world, all of a sudden she’s not here with us when we have built our system around her,” said Mitchell. “So obviously it was a lot of adjusting we had to make in a few days really, and it didn’t really work out for us.”
But Mitchell praised young team-mate Ezi Magbegor, who made her Olympic debut in Tokyo. “Ezi’s going to be the future of the Opals,” she said. “I thought she had a good campaign, but to be honest she can be so much better. There’s a lot of things that she can improve, just to make her a dominant force. So the future’s bright in that sense.”
The Australians’ 55 points was their lowest score at the Olympics since the Sydney 2000 Games, when the Opals lost to Team USA on home soil in the gold medal clash. They will need to regroup ahead of the 2022 Fiba Women’s World Cup, which is being held in Australia.