The Opals suited up for their second match at Tokyo 2020. Photo: NBA Australia

The Opals have gone down in a nail-biter to China 76-74 in a pivotal game at Tokyo 2020, with their quarter-final chances now hanging by a thread at 0-2.

The Opals have gone down in a nail-biter to China 76-74 in a pivotal game at Tokyo 2020, with their quarter-final chances now hanging by a thread at 0-2. Keep up to date with all the happenings at Tokyo 2020 through The Inner Sanctum’s Olympic hub and Olympic Central.

Coming off a tough loss to Belgium in their opening match, the Opals found themselves in a must-win match against China for Group C.

The Opals come in winless, with China having defeated Puerto Rico already. A loss would make progression into the knockout stage difficult for Australia, but a win sets them up to prevail over Puerto Rico and progress in second spot behind Belgium.

Must-win clash for the Opals

A nasty collision between Wang and Katie Ebzery split both players open early in the piece. Ebzery was forced off for a while as they stopped the bleeding, which brought Leilani Mitchell into the game.

Mitchell came off the bench and was immediately more aggressive than the opening match, hitting her first shot from deep and working hard to get into the paint and draw fouls despite her diminutive stature.

From the free-throw line, she is as close to automatic as you can get, going at 95 per cent in the WNBA season. She was the best player on the court in the first period with eight of the Opals’ 19 points.

Her fast start can’t be said of the Opals. They trailed 27-19 at the first change after giving China a flurry of open looks from three, in which they made more than they missed.

In the second term, Ezi Magbegor started to make her presence felt. Coming off a 20-point performance against Belgium, she continued her dominance inside with hard rolls to the rim and was consistently found by Bec Allen and Mitchell. She had eight points at the half.

The Opals really kicked into gear, and eventually wrestled the lead back at 32-31 with a tick over four minutes to play in the second quarter. The defence came to the fore, forcing turnovers of China after a first-quarter that only had three turnovers the entire 10 minutes.

They were able to restrict China to just 11 points in the second quarter but only scored 19 points themselves to lock up the scores at 38-38 heading into the main change.

A second half of swings

China flew out of the gates, knowing they could secure a spot in the quarter-finals with victory. A quick 9-0 run with some highlight long-distance shooting catalysed the run, forcing the Opals into a time-out with eight minutes in the third remaining still looking for their first points.

The lead ballooned out to 11 points – the biggest margin of the match – with under three minutes to go in the term and the Opals had well and truly hit panic stations.

The lead was only narrowed by three points, and China carried a commanding 55-47 advantage going into the final term. It would be all to play for with the Opals staring at an early departure from Tokyo 2020.

Cayla George came out on a mission in the final quarter, draining a long three-point attempt and deflecting a pass on defence immediately after to break up China’s play.

Her energy was infectious, with Australia picking up their intensity and looking like a completely new team on the defensive side. But those offensive troubles still existed, with China ready for every look thrown its way.

A big block in the paint led to an easy lay-up in transition to put the lead back out to 61-50, and another Australian time-out ensued with coach Sandy Brondello scratching her head as to what could solve the offensive problems in the remaining 7:32 of the game.

The sliding doors moment came with 3:48 remaining. With Australia inbounding the ball, Bec Allen retaliated from some physical ball denial with a push. The umpire interpreted it as an unsportsmanlike foul, and China made both free throws and earned possession of the basketball to push the lead out to 10 points.

Magbegor responded emphatically with an and-one transition basket. She then launched herself at a ball passed to her opponent, deflecting it into the Chinese player and out of bounds to give the Opals the ball with three minutes to play down seven points.

Ebzery was able to make two free throws off the play to narrow it down to five. Allen then made up for the mistake with a huge three in the corner to narrow it to three points, with the game suddenly breaking into a track meet with the amount of transition points on offer.

There was 1:08 on the clock and the Opals were down four points with ball in hand. Someone needed to step up.

Enter Jenna O’Hea

Katie Ebzery worked off a screen to get into the paint and get the lay-up home, and they got the stop on the other end. But Allen was unable to convert inside to tie the game, and China secured the rebound which forced the Opals to play the foul game.

With 15.3 seconds left on the clock, China converted both to make it a four-point margin.

Out of the time-out, the ball found Jenna O’Hea from the free-throw line extended, and the Rio veteran hit nothing but net to draw to within one point with 10.4 seconds to play.

Once again China made their free throws to make it three points, but O’Hea ran the floor to the opposite side of the court, and the ball found her and she found the bucket again in one of the most remarkable plays of Tokyo 2020 to tie the game in the most unlikely of fashions.

China called a time-out with the scores tied.

Out of the time-out, China was able to get the ball inside and get fouled. Their centre cooly converted both free throws with just 0.6 seconds left, giving Australia no time to reply.

It was a cruel 76-74 loss for the Opals, in which a horrible third quarter ultimately cost the side. Ezi Magbegor led Australia with 15 points, but offence was few and far between.

They will need to beat Puerto Rico by a substantial margin, with other matches also needing to go their way if they are any chance of progressing into the knockout stages.

It is a dire situation for a side that has medaled at five Olympic Games in the past and were out for redemption after a disappointing quarter-finals exit at Rio 2016.

The Opals will face Puerto Rico on Monday evening.

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