The Opals found themselves trailing 10-2 in the opening minutes of their World Cup clash against Mali on Friday night at the Sydney Superdome.
It was a worrying start, but that all changed in the blink of an eye when Lauren Jackson and Marianna Tolo were inserted into the game.
The two Opal veterans showed their teammates how to compete and be absolutely relentless, and it all started when Jackson was fouled under the basket and displayed that legendary spark in her eyes as she stood up for herself.
From that moment on, you just knew Jackson meant business.
That look on Jackson’s face – one of a total commitment to getting a win for the Opals – has been seen for decades as she previously led Australia to medals on the world stage, but seeing it in 2022 was something extra special given her forced retirement six years ago due to debilitating knee issues.
The presence of Jackson and Tolo in the post changed everything for the Opals and once the team saw success by moving the ball inside and outside, they never looked back and played beautiful basketball for much of the game, leading to a rampaging 60-point win, 118-58.
After being down by eight points early, Australia went on a game-changing 19-point run and it was Jackson, Tolo and Steph Talbot who led the charge as they pumped up the defensive pressure and crucially got to the free throw line.
Tolo is the perfect no nonsense player that gets on with the job at hand and together with Jackson, they calmed things down for the Opals when it could’ve got out of hand quickly.
There was a lot of talk pre-tournament about just how much of an impact Jackson would have. Well, this game showed exactly why she is the greatest of all time.
When Australia desperately needed a lift, she came in and wouldn’t be denied – Jackson made those around her stand taller and her nine minutes of action were as impactful as anyone could’ve ever hoped for.
Jackson (8 points and 4 rebounds) led from the front and the rest of the team followed. She didn’t play in the second half; her work was done.
The difference in ball movement and offensive sets used by the Opals in this game compared to the France game 24 hours earlier was stark. It was clear that they’d learnt from their mistakes against France and were able to implement those changes, albeit after a slow start.
Instead of being sluggish in the halfcourt and waiting for someone else to dip to the basket, cut hard or screen for a teammate, every player seemingly understood their role much better and the offence flowed accordingly.
From the opening tip you could sense a change in what Australia was looking for on offence. Even when the shots weren’t falling in the opening minutes, the offence was focused on moving the ball and passing up good shots for great shots. It didn’t pay off immediately, but after just a few minutes of action, the Opals found their range.
Sami Whitcomb wasn’t bogged down in trying to initiate the offence every trip down the floor, instead she was getting good looks from beyond the arc coming off well-set screens after 10-15 seconds of really solid ball movement. Mali’s defence simply couldn’t keep up.
After scoring just 57 points on 26 per cent shooting from the field and 21.7 per cent from deep against France, Australia flipped the script completely and as all Opals fans hoped would happen, the law of averages came to the fore as Australia caught fire from deep and drained 18 triples on 55 per cent shooting from beyond the arc to finish just one-point shy of the highest score by an Opals squad at a World Cup.
While it was Australia’s three-point shooting that drove them to victory, it was the work done inside by the bigs that set up the sharpshooters to get it going from deep. Tolo and Jackson being absolute bullies in the paint wore down Mali’s bigs and stripped them of any confidence. Having to concentrate on stopping Jackson and Tolo inside, Mali’s defence struggled to fan out to Australia’s shooters on the perimeter.
That’s what good teams do; they have versatile weapons who have different strengths that work together to wear down opponents and leave them unable to guard every option at once. Australia had far too many weapons for Mali, as seven players scored in double figures, led by Ezi Magbegor with 15 points.
Every player had a moment; the likes of Kristy Wallace grabbing a big rebound on one end and taking it the length of the floor scooting by multiple defenders and finishing with a classy lay-up, Whitcomb breaking Djeneba N’Diaye’s ankles with a nifty crossover before kicking it out to Cayla George for a corner triple, captain Tess Madgen and George connecting on four triples each, Anneli Maley making her World Cup debut and having an impact, and Darcee Garbin showing her class on both ends of the court.
Importantly, coach Sandy Brondello was able to limit the minutes of all key players as Australia took a stranglehold of the game in the second quarter. Sara Blicavs (14 points and 8 rebounds in 22 minutes of action) was the only Opal to play over 20 minutes.
Yes, it must be said that Mali is a level below France and the positive forward steps taken by the Opals will need to be tested against stronger opposition. But you can only beat the team that is in front of you on the day and Australia took care of business in the best way possible.
The Opals have a rest day today before what will be a vitally important match-up against Serbia on Sunday. Having failed the test against France’s pressure on Thursday, the Opals have another chance to see how they shape up against a team that is physical, and the Serbians will be full of confidence after grabbing an upset win over Japan, 69-64, on Friday.