Upstart Belgium hand Opals reality check
World No. 6 Belgium has handed the Australian Opals a reality check about what it will take to return to the Olympic podium with an opening-round upset win.
The Opals led through much of the second and third quarters on Tuesday night before a 7-2 start to the final term fired Belgium to its biggest lead of the game and eventually an 85-70 win.
Some might say Liz Cambage’s absence hurt, but the Opals had plenty of inside scoring from Ezi Magbegor and Cayla George. It was their turnovers and defence which really let them down against a nation that has risen fast – this is the Belgium’s first Olympic appearance.
Sara Blicavs reacts from the bench during the second half against Belgium on Tuesday.Credit:Getty Images
In past Olympics, a loss like this could be catastrophic for Australia’s gold medal chances but under the new three-group system, the Opals might still make the top four for the quarter-final draw as long as they score big wins over Puerto Rico and China.
Opals captain Jenna O’Hea said her side would be better especially as this was their third full game together since Olympic qualifying in February 2020.
“That was a disappointing first game for us and not how we wanted to start this tournament,” O’Hea said.
“But it’s definitely not going to be the way we finish it so we’re looking forward to bouncing back against China on Friday.”
Magbegor scored 14 of her 20 points in the first half but struggled to convert thereafter, while George had 12 points and 10 rebounds.
WNBA star Emma Meesseman turned on an inspired performance with 32 points and nine rebounds for Belgium while playmaker Julie Allemand tormented the Opals with 16 points and 11 assists.
The Opals went in without WNBA guard Steph Talbot who was sidelined with a foot problem. Her replacement Katie Ebzery (11 points, nine rebounds, six assists), a veteran WNBL star, stepped up giving her side endless drive up and down the court.
Belgium’s players celebrate their win over Australia in Tokyo on Tuesday.Credit:AP
Meesseman and Allemand were firing early as Belgium went to their outside shot and found the Opals’ perimeter defence wanting. They took a 15-9 lead but the play of Magbegor inside helped Australia bounce back to trail 21-17 at the first buzzer.
Magbegor burnt in the second term scoring five points in two trips while drawing the defence closer to the basket. That left room for patient Melbourne Boomers teammate George, who took back-to-back threes and nailed them both to pull her side into the lead.
The wily George then faked her defender into jumping and drove for an easy lay-up as the Opals threatened to break clear.
Belgium’s Julie Allemand moves the ball up court against Australia.Credit:AP
Magbegor and Ebzery had the Opals up 41-34 just before the buzzer but a broken play saw the Opals lose track of shooter Antonia Delaere (17 points) who swished a three to make it 41-37 to Australia at half-time.
Rebecca Allen’s three to open the third term had the Opals in position to make a game-winning run but instead their offence hit hard times with the team going scoreless from midway through the quarter until 20 seconds before the buzzer when Allen nailed another three.
In that scoreless drought, Belgium briefly reclaimed the lead but reserve guard Tess Madgen came up big for the Opals, sticking a corner three on the buzzer to see Australia ahead 57-56 going into the last term.
Delaere shot from outside and Meesseman scored inside as Belgium went on a 7-2 run to start the last term forcing a timeout from the Opals, but they never recovered.
Earlier in the day, Nigeria pushed gold-medal favourites USA for all 40 minutes before the Americans scored an 81-72 win while hosts Japan upset world No. 5 France 74-70 to show they are a serious medal contender too.
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