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Australia’s Opals have bowed out of the race for gold at the women’s basketball World Cup, falling to China 61-59 in a heart-breaking semi-final.
In circumstances eerily similar to the sides’ clash at the Tokyo Olympics, China broke the deadlock with two free-throws in the dying seconds to win the game.
The Opals will rue a low shooting percentage from the field in Friday’s semi-final and will now face Canada in a bid to secure the bronze medal.
Regardless of the result of Saturday’s final, China will leave Sydney having recorded their equal-best result at a World Cup – they took silver in 1994 and have not finished on the podium since.
China were foul prone in the first quarter and unable to match Australia for rebounds but shot with superior accuracy.
Cayla George and Marianna Tolo both missed regulation lay-ups in the first quarter to set the tone for a wayward shooting performance across the board.
Australia were in the unfamiliar situation of being outsized by their opponents, with guard Sami Whitcomb proving a more prolific scorer than the Aussie talls early on.
She iced two three-pointers early in the second quarter to help the Opals keep pace as China threatened to pull away.
The 2.08m-tall Xu Han went on the rampage for China, scoring as many points as the entire Australian team in the second quarter (13) to give her side a six-point lead at the main change.
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Needing to come back from their lowest halftime score of the tournament, the Australians looked to the youngest member of their team: Ezi Magbegor.
While she could not match the Chinese for height, Magbegor parlayed her athleticism into eight points in two-and-a-half minutes early in the third.
Predictably, Steph Talbot was Australia’s defensive talisman as they restricted China to a miserly 11 points in that quarter.
But sloppy shooting continued to haunt the Australians, whose precision from deep deserted them.
When Whitcomb pounced on the loose ball and charged up the court in the final quarter, the Opals were finally back on level terms after trailing for almost two quarters.
A Talbot lay-up gave Australia the lead for the first time since the second period but the sides continued to go blow for blow.
Talbot turned the ball over in the final minute and China’s Wang Siyu streaked away to level the scores at 59-59 and force an Australian timeout.
Wang stepped up to the stripe after being fouled by Whitcomb in the final four seconds and made both shots to restore China’s lead.
After an Australian timeout, Magbegor had the chance to draw the scores level after the restart but her shot bounced off the rim and the Chinese were home.
In the earlier semi, red-hot tournament favourites United States strolled into the women’s basketball World Cup final by thrashing rivals Canada 83-43 in Sydney.
Never seriously threatened by their opponents, the US remains the only side undefeated at the tournament and are now one win away from a fourth consecutive World Cup title.
USA restricted Canada to the lowest score ever recorded in a World Cup semi-final and relegated them to Saturday’s third-place match, where they will hope to clinch their first medal in this event since 1986.
“I was really pleased with our team’s attention to detail in the scouting report,” USA coach Cheryl Reeve said.
“Canada is a very good defensive team, so that was a quality win for us. Our goal is to win the gold medal and we’re in a position to do that.”
After being tested by Serbia early in their quarter-final, USA ran out to a 15-0 lead against Canada, leaving their opponents to play catch-up for the remainder of the game.
They were much too fast on transition for the Canadians, who appeared overawed by the game’s frenetic pace, especially in the opening exchanges.
Even when Canada could set their defence, the USA had little trouble maintaining their lead through sharper shooting.
Canada did not sink a basket until midway through the first quarter and finished the term having shot at 11 per cent from the field.
They were able to stem the bleeding in patches, starting the second quarter strongly, but there was no breaking through the resolute American defence to close the gap.
Kahleah Copper missed the semi-final with a hip injury and is no guarantee to return for the USA’s final match of the tournament.
“She’s not been ruled out, so there’s a chance,” Reeve said. The Americans had no shortage of firepower, despite her absence.
Canada had no answers for American guard Chelsea Gray, who recorded more assists than in any other match of the tournament (eight) and more than the entire Canada team in Friday’s game (five).
THE WORLD CUP MEDAL MATCHES:
Third-place game: Canada vs. Australia: 1pm AEST
Final: USA vs. China: 4pm AEST
Both games will be played at Qudos Bank Arena on Saturday.