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Australia's hidden sporting gem - or should that be Opal?

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Roar Rookie
23rd September, 2019
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September is always a busy time for sport with the AFL and NRL finals. This September, the last two Tests of the Ashes cricket series, the Super Netball finals and the Australian women’s cricket team tour of the West Indies have also occurred.

There has also been plenty of sport in America including the US Open tennis, the start of the NFL season and the WNBA playoffs.

Not to mention some World Cup or championship action with the FIBA men’s Basketball World Cup being played in China, the Rugby World Cup recently starting in Japan and the IAAF World Athletics Championships beginning on Friday.

With the plethora of sport happening, one event may have slipped under the radar of your average sports fan. One of Australia’s best performed international teams – the Opals – are in Bengaluru, India preparing to compete in the 2019 FIBA Women’s Asia Cup.

The Opals have been in the top two or three countries in the world for most of the last 20 years. In their first visit to the Asia Cup in 2017 they were runner-up, suffering a heartbreaking one-point loss to Japan in the final.

In 2018, the Opals were runner-up to a star-studded USA team in the FIBA Women’s World Cup. The team are coached by Opals legend and Phoenix Mercury coach Sandy Brondello. Brondello won multiple medals at the Olympics and World Championships as a player and coached the Mercury to the WNBA championship in 2014.

Eleven of the 12-woman squad will play in the 2019-20 WNBL season. The WNBL is celebrating its 40th anniversary and the season tips off on Friday, 11th October.

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One star Opal who will be missing is Liz Cambage, who is currently playing for the Las Vegas Aces in the WNBA playoffs (Cambage scored 28 points and took six rebounds in Game 3 of the semi-final series against Washington on Monday morning Australian time). There is no shortage of stars, talent and experience in the squad.

Opals squad

Rebecca Allen
Allen has just completed another WNBA season with the New York Liberty. Allen had two breakout performances for the Liberty in August. Firstly, scoring 21 points on 7-13 from the field and 6-11 from the three-point line vs the Chicago Sky and then scoring 28 points on 11-15 from the field and 6-7 from the three-point line vs the Minnesota Lynx.

Opposition players will have to be mindful of Allen’s long limbs which can cause all sorts of trouble when defending. The long limbs resulted in her nickname ‘Spida’ and helped her win the WNBL Robyn Maher Defensive Player of the Year award in 2013-14.

Abby Bishop
Bishop is a versatile forward-centre who has won multiple championships in the WNBL with the University of Canberra Capitals and a championship in the WNBA with the Seattle Storm. It will be great to see Bishop back on court for the Opals in a major championship. In 2014, the Basketball Australia parenting policy didn’t offer Bishop enough support to look after her daughter Zala and she chose family over the Opals.

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Between the 2011-12 and 2017-18 seasons Bishop (2014-15) was the only person other than Suzy Batkovic to win the WNBL MVP award (now the Suzy Batkovic MVP Award). In other good news for Australian Basketball fans, Bishop will return to the WNBL this season with the Townsville Fire.

Sara Blicavs
Blicavs is a forward who represented the Opals at the 2017 Asia Cup, including a match vs the Philippines where she topped the rebound and assist counts. Blicavs returned to court in the 2018-19 WNBL season for the Dandenong Rangers from a knee injury and played for the Geelong Supercats in the inaugural NBL1 season.

If Blicavs drives to the basket just sit back and enjoy her athleticism. It is no surprise Sara is athletic she hails from a family of sporting thoroughbreds. Her parents both represented Australia in Basketball and her brother Mark is a star in the AFL for Geelong.

Katie Ebzery
Ebzery is a guard who has been a mainstay of the Opals since her debut in the 2015 FIBA Oceania Women’s Championship, also representing the Opals at the 2016 Olympics, 2017 Asia Cup, 2018 Commonwealth Games and 2018 World Cup. Ebzery has been a star of the WNBL over a number of years, most recently for the Sydney Uni Flames and Perth Lynx and was a member of the WNBL All-Star Five in 2015-16.

Darcee Garbin
Garbin has been a forward with the Townsville Fire since the 2015-16 season and averaged ten points per game and 5.2 rebounds per game in the 2018-19 season. Garbin was an important part of Fire championship winning teams in 2015-16 and 2017-18. Garbin is also part of a sporting family with her sister Sophie, recently winning the Super Netball title with the NSW Swifts and being named in the Aussie Diamonds Development Team.

Cayla George
George brings plenty of experience to the Opals. George won the Betty Watson WNBL Rookie of the Year in 2006-07 with the AIS (teammates Abby Bishop (2005-06), Stephanie Talbot (2012-13) and Ezi Magbegor (2017-18) also have won this award). George has won championships at Townsville Fire in 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2017-18 and has played in the WNBA with the Phoenix Mercury and Dallas Wings.

George has averaged over ten points per game in every one of her WNBL seasons except for her first season. George will be doing a lot of the heavy lifting inside the paint. Don’t expect all of George’s work to occur in the key though as she hit a crucial three pointer late in the 2018 World Cup semi-final vs Spain to help Australia qualify for the final.

Ezi Magbegor
Magbegor, at the age of 20, is one of the shining new lights for Australian Basketball. Magbegor won the MVP at the FIBA Under 17 World Championships and has represented the Opals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and 2018 World Cup. In two years in the WNBL she won the Betty Watson Rookie of the Year for the University of Canberra Capitals and averaged 8.7 points and 4.3 rebounds a game for the Melbourne Boomers in 2018-19. Magbegor was picked up in the first round of the 2019 WNBA draft by the Seattle Storm.

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Leilani Mitchell
Mitchell will be running the show from the point for the Opals. Mitchell will be heading into the Asia Cup full of confidence after being named the WNBA’s 2019 Most Improved Player after averaging career highs of 12.8 points, four assists and three rebounds per game for Phoenix Mercury. Mitchell received an incredible 27 of a total 43 votes for the award. Her three-point shooting percentage this WNBA season was 43 per cent.

She became the first player to win the WNBA Most Improved Player award twice after winning it when with the New York Liberty in 2010. Mitchell has won WNBL Championships in 2016-17 with the Sydney Uni Flames (winning the grand final MVP) and 2018-19 with the University of Canberra Capitals. Mitchell will reunite with her Flames championship coach Cheryl Chambers at the Southside Flyers (the new incarnation of the Dandenong Rangers licence).

Lauren Nicholson
Nicholson has played in the WNBL for both the Sydney Uni Flames and Adelaide Lightning. Winning a championship with the Flames in 2016-17 and being a driving force behind the Lightning making the grand final series last season averaging 13.3 points per game. Nicholson played college basketball for Saint Mary’s Gaels, adding to a long list of Aussies to have played for Saint Mary’s including Patty Mills, Matthew Dellavedova, Daniel Kickert and Jock Landale.

Jenna O’Hea
I am not sure that there are enough superlatives to describe Jenna O’Hea. She is versatile, can play as a forward or a guard and oozes leadership. O’Hea is the Opals captain and was named in the WNBL All Star Five in championship seasons for Bulleen Boomers (2010-11) and Dandenong Rangers (2011-12) and has been named in the WNBL All Star Five on three other occasions.

She has played for the LA Sparks and Seattle Storm in the WNBA and has also played in Europe. After returning to the WNBL to captain the Melbourne Boomers for the last two seasons, O’Hea was the first player signing announced by the Southside Flyers.

Nicole Seekamp
Seekamp is a guard who played for the Opals in the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Seekamp was another key reason that the Adelaide Lightning made the 2018-19 WNBL grand final averaging 12.2 points, five rebounds and six assists throughout the season. Seekamp has also spent time in college in America, playing for the University of South Dakota Coyotes. Seekamp attended the pre-season training camp for the WNBA’s Dallas Wings and played in pre-season matches before being waived just prior to the start of the season.

Stephanie Talbot
Talbot has represented the Opals at numerous championships including the 2015 Oceania Championships, 2016 Olympics, 2018 Commonwealth Games and 2018 World Cup. After a season with the Melbourne Boomers, Talbot will return to her original WNBL team, the Adelaide Lightning in 2019-20. Talbot also moved from the Phoenix Mercury to the Minnesota Lynx in the current WNBA season.

Talbot’s best performance for the Lynx was on July 2 vs Atlanta, where she scored 24 points on seven of 13 shooting and where she was five from nine beyond the arc. Talbot also had five other matches where she scored between 13 and 16 points.

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Let’s not forget about our neighbours from New Zealand, who also happen to be in Australia’s group. The Tall Ferns have a number of WNBL players in their squad and in fact have a distinct Melbourne Boomers flavour. The squad includes the following 2019-20 Melbourne Boomers players; Stella Beck, Penina Davidson, Toni Farnworth and Kalani Purcell as well as being coached by Boomers coach Guy Molloy.

Purcell is one of my favourite players and always throws herself into her task, averaging 7.7 rebounds per game for the Melbourne Boomers in 2017-18 and 5.4 rebounds per game in 2018-19 and she topped the rebound count for the entire competition at the 2017 Asia Cup with ten rebounds per game.

Townsville Fire veteran Micaela Cocks is also in the Tall Ferns squad.

So, if you are looking for something to complement your footy finals or Rugby World Cup viewing I would encourage you to turn on Fox Sports channel 507 and to support the Opals as they strive to go one step better than they did at both the 2017 Asia Cup and 2018 World Cup. Go Opals.

Asia Cup Opals Schedule
Tuesday 24 September vs Philippines 5:45pm (AEST)
Wednesday 25 September vs New Zealand 5:45pm (AEST)
Thursday 26 September vs China 8pm (AEST)

Winner of group advances. Second and third place teams to play Friday 27 September.
Semi-finals: Saturday 28 September
Final: Sunday 29 September