Sami Whitcomb was appointed captain of an inexperienced Australian Opals basketball team at the FIBA Women’s Asia Cup (Asia Cup), and she didn’t let anyone down.
In fact, she exceeded expectations. On the Thursday prior to the Asia Cup, Whitcomb was playing in a WNBA playoff game for the New York Liberty in Phoenix.
Unfortunately for the Liberty but fortunately for the Opals, the Liberty lost a thriller by one point and their season ended. On the next Monday, less than four days later, the Opals and Whitcomb were playing their first match against Chinese Taipei in Amman, Jordan.
Nine members of the 12-player squad were making their Opals debuts. Only Whitcomb, Lauren Nicholson and Darcee Garbin had previously represented the Opals.
Pool Game 1 – Opals vs Chinese Taipei
Acting Opals coach Paul Goriss (Opals coach Sandy Brondello is coaching the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA playoffs) eased Whitcomb into the fray from the bench. This didn’t stop Whitcomb from scoring a double-double, with 13 points, 11 assists as well as taking 6 rebounds. The Opals had a slow start but did enough to close out a 76 – 65 victory.
This match would have encouraged Perth Lynx fans for the upcoming WNBL season. Darcee Garbin top scored with 15 points, including 3 three-pointers made, and took 7 rebounds. Alex Sharp, like Whitcomb, had a double-double, with 11 points and 10 rebounds. Lynx recruit Lauren Scherf scored 7 points and took 7 rebounds.
All twelve players in the squad received game time in this first match. Others to hit the scoreboard included Townsville Fire’s Zitina Aokuso with 10 points and Sydney Uni Flames recruit Keely Froling with 8 points.
The key players for Chinese Taipei were Yu-Ting Lin with 12 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists, Tieh Lin 8 points and 11 rebounds and Hsiao-Tong Peng 8 points.
Pool Game 2 – Opals vs Philippines
On game day 2, the Opals were too strong for the Philippines winning 120 to 56. Townsville Fire’s Lauren Nicholson top scored with 21 points, had 6 rebounds and made 3 assists. Sydney Uni Flames star recruit Keely Froling had a double-double with 19 points and 13 rebounds. The Perth Lynx trio of Sharp, Garbin and Scherf all scored 12 points each.
It was good to see some of the less experienced Opals have an impact in this game with Jaz Shelley scoring 10 points, Tiana Mangakahia 8 points and Jade Melbourne 7 points.
You may well ask what happened to captain Whitcomb in this game? Well, she dominated for the time she was out there. In just 14 minutes 48 seconds, Whitcomb scored 8 points, took 7 rebounds and made 7 assists.
Janine Pontejos scored 13 points and Kristine Cayabyab 10 points for Philippines.
Pool Game 3 – China vs Opals
This match was a great contest, particularly in the first half. China headed into halftime with a 40-39 lead. China was able to move away from the Opals in the second half, winning the third quarter by 8 points and the fourth quarter by 9 points.
Sami Whitcomb led from the front, shooting 8/19 from the field and 6/6 from the free throw line to score 24 points. Whitcomb also had 7 rebounds and 5 assists.
It was great to see Kristy Wallace at her dynamic best, with 14 points on 6/13 shooting from the field. Wallace has previously recovered from ACL injuries suffered playing college basketball with Baylor and on her return with the University of Canberra Capitals in the WNBL.
No other Opals scored in double figures in this game. Xu Han 16 points and 11 rebounds, Yuan Li 15 points and Liwei Yang and Sijing Huang each scored 12 points and Huang also took 8 rebounds guiding China to an 82 – 64 win.
Qualification Semi- Final
Opals vs New Zealand Tall Ferns
The winner of this Oceania “reunion” clash would move onto the semi-finals. There were plenty of familiar faces in this match particularly if you are a fan of the WNBL and / or NBL1.
It was a hotly contested match, although the Tall Ferns did not actually win a quarter. The scores were tied at 20-all at the end of the first quarter, the Opals won the second quarter 20 – 14, the third quarter 14 – 11 and the fourth quarter 18 – 16. The final score was the Opals 72 to the Tall Ferns 61.
I will give you one guess who the star of this game was from an Opals perspective. You shouldn’t be at your w(h)its end trying to work it out.
At one stage, in the second quarter it was almost as if Sami Whitcomb had picked up the entire Opals team and was carrying the team on her back. Whitcomb scored 20 points by halftime and finished the game with 29 points, shooting at 57.1 per cent (4/7) from the 3-point line. Whitcomb was also equal top of the Opals’ rebound count with 7 and provided the most assists for the Opals with 6.
Lauren Scherf 13 points and Darcee Garbin 10 points were the only other Opals in double figures. Zitina Aokuso joined Whitcomb with 7 rebounds, Scherf took 6 rebounds, Kristy Wallace and Adelaide Lightning’s Abbey Wehrung each took 5 rebounds and Wehrung also had 5 assists.
The Leger-Walker sisters were the standouts for the Tall Ferns. Charlisse scored 17 points and had 4 assists and Krystal scored 12 points, had 6 assists and 4 rebounds. Two current Melbourne Boomers Penina Davidson and Ashleigh Karaitiana and a former Melbourne Boomer and new Sydney Uni Flames recruit Kalani Purcell topped the Tall Ferns’ rebound count with 5 apiece.
Japan vs Opals
On the back of defensive intensity and 4 three-pointers Japan took a 20 – 12 lead into the end of the first quarter.
The Opals upped the ante in the second quarter. 19-year-old University of Canberra Capital Jade Melbourne made an immediate impact coming off the bench taking a defensive rebound and going coast-to-coast for the basket. At halftime, the Opals were ahead 36 – 31.
Whatever Japan drank at halftime I want some. Japan scored the first 12 points of the third quarter. The Opals were able to fight back to lead by 2 at the end of the third quarter. The Opals led until about three or four minutes left in the fourth quarter.
The Opals had the final possession and had a chance to tie the game or win with a three. Unfortunately, great defence from Japan and perhaps a lack of composure from the Opals, saw the Opals kept well outside the three-point line. Sami Whitcomb attempted a long range three at the buzzer but was blocked and Japan advanced to the final to play China with a hard fought 67 – 65 win.
This is the Opals third appearance in the Asia Cup and Japan has been our nemesis every time. In 2017, Japan defeated the Opals in the final by 1 point. In 2019, Japan defeated the Opals in the semi-final by 12 points.
Sami Whitcomb top scored for the Opals with 16 points. Whitcomb also had 8 assists, 7 rebounds and 3 steals. Lauren Scherf again was brilliant with a double-double (12 points and 15 rebounds). Keely Froling with 10 points and 3 rebounds and Lauren Nicholson with 7 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals were also important contributors.
For Japan, Saki Hayashi had a game high 17 points, which included 5/10 from outside the arc and 7 rebounds. Himawari Akaho scored 10 points and took 6 rebounds. Mai Yamamoto also scored 12 points. Whilst Stephanie Mawuli notched up 11 points, had 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals.
3rd place playoff
Opals vs Korea
The Opals took a two-point lead into quarter time but after that it was all the Opals, who won the second quarter 23 – 10, the third quarter 19 – 12 and the last quarter 22 – 14. The Opals were Bronzed Aussies after an 88 – 58 win.
Sami Whitcomb was again outstanding with 15 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists. Even a rolled ankle in the second quarter couldn’t stop her.
Darcee Garbin scored 14 points and Keely Froling and Zitina Aokuso both scored 10 points and took 7 rebounds. Froling and Aokuso both scored eight points in the first quarter.
Abbey Wehrung and Alex Sharp scored 8 points each and Lauren Scherf had another good game with 7 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists.
Jihyun Park was the game top scorer with 17 points, including four three-pointers, and took six rebounds. Danbi Kim also scored 11 points and had 4 assists for Korea.
Given the inexperienced squad, it was a great effort to get so close to Japan in the semi-finals and to finish third.
In the final, Japan started the last quarter with a 12-0 run to overcome a five-point three quarter time to deficit to defeat China 78 – 73. This was Japan’s fifth Asia Cup title in a row.
Sami Whitcomb, who finished the tournament with averages of 17.5 points, 7.5 assists and 7.2 rebounds per game, was rightfully rewarded with selection in the All-Star Five.
Other members of the All-Star Five were Tournament MVP Himawari Akaho (10.6 points, 5 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game) and Saori Miyazaki, who scored 26 points in the final, both from Japan. China’s Yueru Li (15.6 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game) and Sijing Huang (13.2 points, 5.4 boards and 3.2 assist per game) round out the All-Star Five.
This tournament provided a look into the future for the Opals and it looks pretty bright.