27/02/2024

The Opals were defeated in their first game at Tokyo 2020. Photo: Australia Olympic Team

Tokyo 2020 is up and running for the Opals, but Belgium has spoilt the party with a spectacular second half to take out the first match of Group C 85-70.

Tokyo 2020 is up and running for the Opals, but Belgium has spoiled the party with a spectacular second half to take out the first match of Group C 85-70. For all your Tokyo 2020 coverage, stay tuned to The Inner Sanctum’s Olympic hub and the Olympics Central.

Belgium was making its Olympics debut at Tokyo 2020 ranked sixth in the world by FIBA, while the Opals are ranked second, trailing the USA after a disappointing Rio 2016 performance in which they crashed out in the quarter-finals.

These two sides are expected to fight for the top of Group C in Tokyo, so it was a vital match to gain early ascendency.

The Opals are back shining on the big stage

It was a steely opening few minutes with both sides starting their Olympics campaign, but point guard Leilani Mitchell found star 21-year-old Ezi Magbegor inside and she was able to finish through contact to drop in two and go to the free-throw line early on to get the Opals going.

However, it was Belgium who started the better of the sides, with their fast movement getting the ball inside where Australia found itself regularly exposed without the imposing figure of Liz Cambage.

Magbegor was doing her best to respond early and had seven points and three rebounds within the first six minutes of the match. But it was Belgium who repeatedly traded twos for threes and enjoyed a 17-11 advantage with three minutes left in the first term.

Belgium would continue to run Mitchell of a multitude of screens on their offence, creating openings for their bigs to roll to the rim and finding quick cuts to get easy buckets. in the half-court.

They were able to maintain a 21-17 advantage going into the first change, with the difference being two three-pointers whereas Australia was unable to convert from deep.

Magbegor was dominant inside with seven points and three rebounds before taking a rest.

In the second quarter, Belgium picked up where they left off with beautiful passes to cutting teammates.

However, Magbegor – who would take a very brief rest – kept the Australian score ticking over as she did got to the rim in every which way. She brought the Opals to within one point at the eight-minute mark, posting up her opponent and hitting the shot plus a foul.

Cayla George then hit from deep for Australia to take its first lead of the match 25-23, before George hit another in quick succession from long range to send the Opals bench crazy and force Belgium into calling a time-out.

Out of the time-out, George hadn’t cooled down. She soared through the paint, faked a pass to Magbegor which the defenders bought and laid in another one to increase the Opals’ advantage to five points, but Belgium found their rhythm again to respond from deep straight away.

The arm wrestle continued down the stretch of the second term, with the sides trading the lead for what felt like every possession.

Belgium went cold from three after a fast start, while Australia – with thanks to George and Katie-Rae Ebzery – found their groove to hit at 38 per cent from deep before their opponents were forced to take another time-out with 1:43 remaining in the first half.

Magbegor was sitting on 14 points at this point in a standout performance with the 193-centimetres forward/centre helping Australia lead 39-34.

Ebzery extended the margin to seven points which was the biggest lead of the second half, but Belgium hit the buzzer-beating three to narrow the gap to 41-37 at the long break and launch Belgium into the half with some momentum.

The game was poised with the sides evenly matched, but Ezi Megbegor was undoubtedly the difference in the first half.

Australia and Belgium go back and forth

Australia looked like a team on a mission coming out of the main break. Every player touched the ball in their first possession as it swung around to find Bec Allen, who made her first shot of the game from deep.

Belgium, as always, wouldn’t go quietly and heaped the pressure on the smaller Opals front court by getting the ball inside. Magbegor and George kept working in the key on defence, but Belgium repeatedly found good shots at the rim to close it to 46-43.

Belgium’s guard Julia Allemand was consistently finding gaps in the defence and making the Aussies pay – she reached 14 points midway through the third quarter with a beautiful jumper from the free-throw line after stopping on a dime.

She was able to once again get the momentum going Belgium’s way, and with the eighth turnover of the game for the Opals the margin began to dwindle. Kim Mestdagh had the opportunity to tie the game up from the free throw, but only converted one of her two with under four minutes to go in the third term.

Her trip to the line began a stretch of two minutes with no score, but Belgium wouldn’t be denied for long and they finally took the lead with just over a minute remaining in the third. Using their height, the Europeans repeatedly rebounded offensively and kept applying the pressure to the Opals, who were unable to secure the ball to end the third term.

Bec Allen gave the Opals a much-needed triple with 30 seconds remaining to tie the scores before Tess Madgen found her range from deep and connected on another triple to help the Opals stay in front.

At the final change, Australia led by a single point 57-56 with thanks to some late damage from deep, but Belgium maintained a lot of momentum after coming back from a seven-point deficit halfway through the quarter.

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Turnovers would become a problem for the Opals, making their 11th, while an 11 per cent effort from three for Belgium was never going to last, and they found their stroke to take the lead early.

Opals coach Sandy Brondello took a time-out at 59-63 with just over seven minutes remaining in the final quarter. Australia had been unable to find any consistency in their offence, while Belgium was able to get most of what they wanted offensively and it was starting to show on the scoreboard.

Coming out of the time-out, Magbegor was the big focal point having only scored two points in the second half. Belgium were aware of her ability though, and kept forcing her away from the paint which made Allen become the main attacker in the Opals lineup.

A momentary lapse in concentration gave Belgium four quick points after stealing the inbound pass, which would put Belgium up six and in a commanding position.

Emma Meesseman was proving unstoppable at times, and really took control of the Belgium offence down the stretch. She scored her 26th point of the match halfway through the final term.

The lid was well and truly on the Opals’ basket, while Meesseman continued to do as she pleased inside the three-point line. With 4:14 on the clock, Mitchell headed to the free-throw line and converted both to bring it back to 63-71.

Getting multiple stops was an absolute must for the Opals, and Brondello sent a zone out there which was effective, but the Opals were once again unable to secure the rebound.

Another turnover on offence and Madgen committed a foul on a made basket back on defence. Belgium converted the and-one to lead by 11 points with just three minutes left, and that was all this game wrote.

Belgium wisely used their shot clock to take time off and were able to find good offence and draw fouls late into the 24 seconds. There offence flowed well all game, and Meesseman was finding everything she wanted as she hit another turn-around jumper to take her tally to 28 points.

They stretched their lead even further from the free-throw line, and a three-pointer put the margin out to 85-70 with 30 seconds remaining. Belgium was faultless in the second half with ball movement and switchable defence, and Emma Meessema made her presence felt in her Olympic debut.

She finished with 32 points, nine rebounds and five assists as the game finished 85-70 in Belgium’s favour. For the Opals, Ezi Magbegor led all scorers with 20 points and eight rebounds at centre.

Australia will face China on Friday, while Belgium takes on Puerto Rico in the second matches of Group C.

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