OPALS TEE UP USA FINALE

The USA face Australia in Sunday’s FIBA Women’s World Cup final in Tenerife.

Liz Cambage grabbed 33 points and 15 rebounds as the Australians snatched a dramatic 72-66 semi-final win over hosts Spain.

The centre overcame foul trouble to propel the Opals to just their second decider — after their title win in 2006.

“This is the furthest I’ve been at this level. I’ve never played a gold medal game at this level,” she said.

“I’ve also carried a little bit of a weight on my shoulders for eight years.”

Cambage was almost unstoppable against the hosts, going 11 of 16 from the field including a lay-up in the final 30 seconds to put the finishing touches on her dominant game with the Aussies now looking to match their Commonwealth Games triumph in April.

They will remain underdogs against the United States with the defending champions requiring a quick start in the second half, fueled by three consecutive 3-pointers from Diana Taurasi -and a perfect, record-setting night at the foul line – to defeat Belgium 93-77.

The USA is seeking its third-straight gold medal, a feat it has never accomplished, and currently is riding a 21-game World Cup winning streak that dates back to the 2006 bronze medal game.

“This is exactly the position that we expected and wanted to be in,” WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart said. “So, this just goes to show that everything we’ve done thus far was for the right reason. But we know we still have one more game.”

Taurasi led the USA in scoring with 26 points, two less than her World Cup high in 2006. She broke her own USA record for 3-point attempts in a game with 10, making five. Stewart made her presence felt with 20 points and seven rebounds on the night.

When Brittney Griner started the scoring off with a layup soon after the tip, she did more than give the USA a 2-0 lead. That bucket put the USA over 10,000 all-time World Cup points. Milestones aside, the USA would need to keep up that scoring to get past an inspired Belgium team.

The USA had never met Belgium in major international play prior to Saturday’s game, but the World Cup first-timers gave the USA a first-class effort in the first half.

There were six lead changes and seven ties in a first half that Belgium led for 10:01. Neither team could break away, despite 10 points from Taurasi and 13 (all in the first quarter) from Emma Meesseman of Belgium, who plays alongside the USA’s Elena Delle Donne for the Washington Mystics.

With the tournament favourites only 40-39 ahead at the break, Taurasi bested her previous tournament high of 16 points with her first two 3s to start the second half. Then she kept going. Taurasi scored 13 points in the third quarter. Her effort, coupled with nine third-quarter points from Stewart, gave the USA the advantage it had been seeking all game.

“We got some stops,” Taurasi said. “They’re a really good team. They’re hard to guard. You can tell they’ve been playing together for a long time. If you make a mistake, they make you pay for it. We just got a couple more stops. We made a couple more plays on offense. I think our depth wore them down a little bit. They’ve been playing big minutes. But, that’s a really, really good team. That’s just the bottom line.”

The result was a 16-point USA lead to start the fourth quarter.

“I think the biggest difference is we were really pushing it in transition,” Stewart said of the third quarter run. “We knew that without depth, they were going to get tired.”

In the fourth quarter, the USA leaned on its post players. It poured in 12 points in the paint to bury Belgium, which couldn’t keep up with the USA’s consistent scoring.

The USA was flawless from the free throw line, making all 19 of its attempts, including seven from Taurasi and six from Griner. The perfect night from the line is the USA’s best single-game free throw percentage in its World Cup history, besting the previous record of 94.7 percent in a 1994 match with Spain.

“I thought that we were challenged by a really good Belgium team that didn’t wanna go away,” USA and South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. “I think that they played an incredible game on both sides of the ball. I just thought our depth really allowed us to open the game up over a 40-minute period.”

On an evening of understated efficiency, seven assists by Sue Bird (Seattle Storm) – with just one turnover – matched her career tournament high and upped her all-time World Cup total to 102, one behind Staley’s record of 103.

“Anytime you can break a record, it’s one of those things that I believe, later, when it’s all said and done, you’re retired, you look back and you have a true appreciation,” Bird said. “This one is a little bit different in that it is someone like Dawn who’s holding it. We learned from the best, so if the record were to be broken, that would be an honour just to be up there amongst those names. It already is.”

Belgium face Spain in the third place playoff.

 

(Pic: Catherine Steenkeste, USAB)

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