Opals flex their muscle in wins over Brazil and Korea in the qualifying tournament (Photo:Basketball Australia)

The Australian Opals finished the qualifying tournament in Serbia with 2 wins and a loss. A new style of play on the defensive end was the difference.

The Australian Opals finished the qualifying tournament in Serbia with 2 wins and a loss. With automatic qualification into the Women’s World Cup due to being the host nation, it was a tournament to introduce a new style of play, trial some players, and rank as high as we could for the World Cup in September.

The tournament solidified what we know about some of our best players and highlighted a new style of play.

It gave us a look at some younger inexperienced Australian players and some veterans wanting to cement their spot. 

The Inner Sanctum had a look at what we learned from watching the Opals in the World Cup qualifying event and what questions still remain unanswered. 

What we know:

The Opals are playing a more defensive style of game, which was evident from tipoff in game 1. There was a notable difference in energy on the defensive end from the team that took the court in Tokyo. The starting 5 set the tone early and were up and in the lanes, shrinking the floor and taking away driving opportunities. 

This worked well for the most part in game 1, keeping Brazil to 52 points and earning Australia the win. The same focus was brought into game 2 but the Serbians hit some competitive shots under pressure. They also had the same idea on defence, pressuring the Australians into mistakes and clamping down on the Opals offence especially late in the fourth when it mattered most. 

In the third and final game against Korea, the Opals won comfortably by 18 points and were able to keep the Koreans to a score of 61.

Brondello spoke about bringing in a more defensive focus, which is what is needed if we are to compete against the elite scoring teams in the world.

If we learned anything from the recent Olympics, teams are improving on the offensive end and you only have to look at Japan as an example with their improved 3 point shooting. 

With Liz Cambage no longer in the team, The Opals needed to make adjustments to their team defence as they can no longer rely on Cambage to protect the ring. 

The Opals came away with 2 wins and a loss in the qualifying event in Serbia. (Photo: Basketball Australia)

In relation to offence, Brondello still likes having two transitional bigs on the floor even when the opposition goes small. She used the pick and roll action well with Cayla George, Alanna Smith, and Marianna Tolo having a positive impact as the screener.

George was able to use her versatility on offence by screening and popping to the 3 point line – which either gave her an open 3 or created driving lines for the guards. 

The Opals need to take better care of the ball. There were way too many loose passes and poor decision-making on offence. this may of course be down to lack of time together but it’s one area we need to clean up, as opposition teams will feast on turnovers at the international level. 

Lock it in:

As we’ve mentioned the defensive focus will stay.  Ezi Magbegor returning to the lineup will help with this too. With another WNBA season under her belt and no Cambage in the team, Magbegor will become arguably the most important player in the team and may be the difference with getting on the podium. 

Sami Whitcomb will keep the number 1 point guard position after once again proving her value in a green and gold singlet- not only as a scoring threat but her leadership on the floor.

In the lead-up to the qualifying tournament, Brondello was elusive when answering questions about who would take the mantle from Leilani Mitchell but that was emphatically answered by Whitcomb’s performances – earning all-star 5 honours at the tournament. 

Brondello won’t be taking 3 backup point guards in the final 12 for the World Cup. It’s likely that Shyla Heal, Kristy Wallace, and Maddie Rocci will be fighting for one spot. 

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The unknowns:

Will Brondello make any further changes to the line up- besides Magbegor coming in?

The Opals struggled with Serbians full-court pressure especially when they had only had one dominant ball handler on the floor.

Tess Madgen – A combo guard played more mins in the second half alongside Whitcomb but was sparingly used as a secondary ball-handler.

An argument can be made for another combo guard who can handle the ball and create off the dribble such as Lauren Nicholson who was a surprising omission from the squad. 

Will Maddy Rocci keep her spot as the backup point guard?

Rocci had a mixed impact in her role during the tournament. At times she appeared to struggle with leading the team on offence but again this may be due to a lack of time together as a team.

Brondello will be weighing up the options and deciding on whether Rocci has the playmaking ability to fulfill the backup position or whether she goes to the likes of Shyla Heal who had limited opportunities during the tournament. 

Will Anneli Maley get another opportunity this year to prove she should be in the team? The favourite for WNBL MVP continues to impress and in a high tempo environment that international basketball brings – her strengths would surely suit.

An eye on the future:

The likes of Darcy Garbin, Kristy Wallace, Sara Blicavs, Rocci, and Heal will be looking for strong finishes to the WNBL season. They are five players who are arguably yet to cement their spot so they’ll be looking to continue to impress. 

The next Opals camp will be during the WNBA season, so, therefore, give the likes of Anneli Maley, Bec Cole, and Lauren Scherf a chance of being invited. 

The Commonwealth Games start at the end of July and finish early August, which clashes with the final rounds of the WNBA.

This will most likely suggest that Bec Allen, Steph Talbot, Whitcomb, and Magbegor will be missing from the Opals team opening up plenty of opportunities for other players to represent Australia in England. 

The Opals would want nothing more than to win gold at the Commonwealth Games but it will also be the perfect situation to try out some of our younger players coming through.

It may even open up spots for some women who are yet to be considered such as Townsville’s,  Stephanie Reid. Reid would definitely fit into Brondello’s defensive focus.  

With two wins from 3 games and a ranking of number 3 in the world, the Opals would be happy with the progress of the past 2 weeks. 

We were able to play to our strengths throughout the tournament and highlight key areas of improvement needed. 

It was exciting to see a new wave of players coming through but it was evident we need to be better for longer with fewer lapses when we play higher-ranked teams. 

The future is bright for one of Australia’s favourite sporting teams and we look forward to watching it unfold in 2022. 

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