Opals vs Serbia – Quarter Final Preview

After what was at times an underwhelming performance in the preliminary rounds, the real Olympic tournament begins for the second-ranked Australian Opals at midnight tonight AEST when they take on Serbia with a semi-final berth on the line.

It’s maybe a little unfair to downgrade the Opals’ performance to date. They did, after all, go a perfect 5-0 to head Group A. But the girls are their own harshest critics, and wouldn’t be entirely happy with a campaign that has seen them struggle on more than a few occasions to put their lesser rivals away.

With the world’s number one United States laying waste to all before them in Group B – incredibly, the Americans won their five games by an average of 40 points per game – there’s a sense that everyone else is playing for second, including the Opals, who have beaten some quality teams along the way but have rarely looked convincing.

However, all they had to do was put themselves in the best possible position, and they’ve done that, avoiding a matchup with the US until the gold medal game.

And of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. Elizabeth Cambage leads the Games in scoring at 22.4 points per game and is averaging a double-double for the tournament; Leilani Mitchell has stamped herself as arguably the best point guard in the preliminary rounds and Penny Taylor has produced a couple of turn back the clock performances.

Where the issues have come is when Head Coach Brendan Joyce has had to turn to his bench, which has been inconsistent for the most part, outside centre Marianna Tolo, who has done a solid job backing up Cambage.

If the Opals are to go all the way and upset the USA for the gold, the ‘Big Three’ of Cambage, Mitchell and Taylor is going to need a lot more help.

And tonight is a good place to start as the Opals meet a Serbian team that finished fourth in Group B with a 2-3 record, dropping games to Spain, Canada and the USA while getting past the minnows in their group, China and Senegal.

For the 2015 Eurobasket champions, it hasn’t been the greatest of Olympiads to date, but despite Australia’s favouritism heading into this quarter final battle, the Opals have themselves an enormous fight on their hands to get through to the next round.

The Serbians boast four players in double figure scoring at this tournament, led by forward Sonja Petrovic (16.4ppg, 5.2rpg, 4.0apg) who has scored at least 12 points in all five games and is coming off back to back 20 point games.

American-born power forward Danielle Page (12.0ppg, 5.8rpg) leads her team in rebounding and is shooting 57% from the field while Jelena Milovanovic is playing as a 6’3” stretch four, averaging 15.8 points and 4.2 rebounds per game and shooting an efficient 43% from three point range.

As ever, the focal point for Australia will be Liz Cambage. She’s been the MVP of the tournament to date and without her it’s doubtful Australia would make it out of the quarter-finals. The Opals need to get her isolated on the block as much as possible and give her enough space to operate; conversely, when she is inevitably double-teamed the movement off the ball must be crisp and precise to get players open looks.

Defensively, Australia must do a much better job in two areas – stopping anything easy out of pick and roll situations and denying any entries into the keyway. When Japan stunned the Opals for three quarters in the preliminary round, a big key to their success was their execution of the pick and roll combined with the Aussies’ seeming inability to contain dribble penetration – at least, before they switched to a zone in the fourth and grabbed control of the tempo.

Serbia don’t have the speed to match what Japan threw at the Opals. However, the same principles will apply, because the Serbs are a team that will execute well in the half court and have the kind of inside-outside game that can give Australia problems.

But Australia has the talent to prevail, and after a hard-fought game should get the job done by seven points.

It’s time for the Opals to step up and deliver. The semi-final awaits.

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