Without star Liz Cambage, many had written off the Opals’ gold medal chances. Now, in the first competition game without the centre, Australia have been rattled 85-70 by Belgium in their Olympics opener.
The controversial Cambage, the Opals best player, left the team just days before the games as they prepared in Las Vegas, under investigation by Basketball Australia over a physical and verbal altercation with the Nigerian team.
Australia still lined up with an array of WNBA talent against Belgium but it wasn’t enough. Ezi Magbegor, touted as Cambage’s replacement going forward, proved that she can shoulder some of the responsibility, but not all of it.
Opals coach Sandy Brondello had spotlighted Magbegor as the next player up.
“She just wants to do what she can to make this team really great. She’s going to be a superstar,” Brondello told News Corp.
“We don’t want to put too much pressure on her. But she’s a special player, and she’s going to be playing in many more Olympics.”
Brondello also threw her support behind Cambage who cited mental health issues as the reason for withdrawing, something she has flagged in the past.
“It’s unfortunate, any kind of drama leading into the Olympic Games,” Brondello said, “but Liz had to take care of herself … and we’ll support her in that.”
While they may have put the drama behind them, the Opals weren’t good enough to topple the sixth-best ranked team in the world.
Belgium’s star player, Emma Meesseman was a nightmare for Australia and got the scoring going with their first four points. Her efforts foreshadowed what would be an impressive game for the Washington Mystics forward.
Ezi Magbegor had an imposing opening few minutes, coming up with an impressive and-one chance, an opportune block and a quick move in the paint to reduce the margin.
Magbegor single-handedly kept the Opals in touch with seven points in the first.
It was only when the Aussie centre returned to the court in the second quarter, that Australia’s offence began to flow again – her commanding paint presence provided a great offensive focal point.
Cayla George also made it rain with a pair of threes, which forced a Belgian timeout.
That break certainly worked as Belgium regained the lead off the back of Antonia Delaere.
However, George and Magbegor finished the first half in the same manner they began it: getting buckets. The Opals centre finished with 14 points and 5 rebounds, while George also reached double-figures in scoring.
As the primary offensive options, given Leilani Mitchell went scoreless throughout the majority of the game, a lot was asked of George and Magbegor.
But just as the scoring dried up in the second half, Australian captain Jenna O’Hea found nylon from behind the arc, which momentarily kept the Belgians at bay.
Tess Madgen also chose the perfect time to post her first points, as she drained a late three to put Australia up one going into the fourth.
While Magbegor was not as productive offensively in the second half, she was a stalwart on the defensive end.
However, a lapse in concentration by Magbegor turned a Belgian possession into a four-point trip as her in-bound pass was stolen and swiftly laid in.
A transition lay up gave Belgium an eight-point lead, the largest of the game, before Meesseman’s fadeaway made it ten.
Meesseman posted 32 points as Belgium would hold the lead to complete a major upset and throw the Opals’ medal campaign up in the air.
Magbegor finished with 20 points and 8 rebounds but couldn’t quite drag Australia to the win.
The upset wasn’t the only conversation point of the game either, as the retro bodysuits the Opals donned also had viewers talking online.
The green and gold uniforms were first worn when the Opals took bronze at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, Australia’s first-ever basketball medal.
However, their chances of medalling this time around just took a huge hit.
The Aussies now look towards their match-up with China to get their Olympic campaign back on track.