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French bag it as Opals falter

AUSTRALIA's Opals may be ranked No.2 in the world by FIBA but today they simply were outclassed by France as the home team was roared to a 72-63 victory in their opening match of the final qualifiers in Bourges for the Tokyo Olympics.

The emphatic home crowd may have been a factor throughout but its influence was never more present than at the start of a fourth quarter which saw Opals star Liz Cambage quickly rushed from two fouls to four, as Australia copped three fouls in the opening 41 seconds of the period.

With 8:29 left - so, basically, 90 seconds into the last quarter - Australia had its fourth team foul and France was in bonus.

While those are facts, it would be churlish to quibble about which was the better team on the day, the French paced by shooting guard Bria Hartley (below) who not only scored 13 points at 55 per cent, but also grabbed seven rebounds, dished eight assists, stole the ball three times and finished without a turnover or foul in 27:53 of elite action.

If you're seeking efficiency, there's your benchmark.

French centre Sandrine Gruda had 16 points at 62 per cent, plus 11 rebounds and two blocks, and when the match needed to be consolidated, Marine Johannes struck twice from the corner and the Opals were buried.

Offensively, Australia was completely reliant on Liz Cambage inside and Bec Allen outside, and while both players answered the bell, the fact no third player made it into double figures was telling.

Cambage delivered a 19-point, 20-rebound effort, with three assists and two blocks, and Allen produced a game-high 20 points at 58 per cent, hitting 4-of-4 threes before finally missing her last rushed attempt.

She also had four boards and four assists in a game which was marked by amazing scoring runs by both outfits.

Little separated them through the first quarter as Cambage and Gruda essentially went to war in the paint, Cayla George's nifty reverse giving Australia an 11-8 lead with 4:17 to the break.

But France closed the period with its last six points, then opened the second quarter in sizzling fashion, Johannes nailing two 3-pointers, sandwiched around a triple by Diandra Tchatchouang.

The 9-0 outburst completed a 15-0 run before Allen's drive and left-hand finish at 7:30 opened Australia's second quarter account and gave it life again at 13-23 down.

Cambage scored, was fouled but missed the bonus, Leilani Mitchell snaring the offensive rebound before adding insult to injury by sticking a threeball.

That forced a French timeout which changed little, Allen again to the basket for 20-23 and the Aussies on their own 9-0 outburst.

Olivia Epoupa and Gruda took France back out to 27-20 before Cambage and George, then Mitchell with her second 3-pointer, tied it at 27-27, 4:44 out from halftime.

That merely triggered "Hartley time", the dynamic guard going after Mitchell's defence to personally score the next six points before Valeriane Vukosavljevic took the lead to 35-27 and timeout Sandy Brondello.

A turnover - the Opals had a whopping 18 to France's tidy seven - led to an Epoupa fast break, Katie Ebzery unlucky to trip her and cop an unsportsmanlike foul.

When Epoupa converted one of her free throws, the France run was closed at 9-0 for a 36-27 buffer. Ebzery's 3-pointer trimmed to it 30-36 at the main break.

France opened the second half on a 7-0 run for 43-30, with Gruda and Endene Miyem both scoring on open rolls as the Opals bungled their pick-and-roll defence, before Miyem then also spliced a three.

Cambage got the Opals going at 7:28 and now it was Australia's turn to compile a 9-0 recovery for 39-43. Hartley with a 3-pointer sparked the home team again as it raced 50-40 clear, only for another Allen-led revival to get it back to 47-50.

But the Opals spent the game in chase mode and when they started the final period running up the foul count, not even Allen's late 3-point barrage would draw them any closer than 61-66.

In the day's major upset, Puerto Rico shocked Brazil 91-89 in overtime. To advance to the Tokyo Games, the Opals must finish top three of this four-team group, something which still should be a relatively safe task given our World #2 status.

(Gruda 16, Hartley 13, Johannes 12; Gruda 11 rebs; Hartley 8 assts) d AUSTRALIA OPALS 63 (Allen 20, Cambage 19; Cambage 20 rebs; Allen 4 assts).
PUERTO RICO 91 (O’Neill 30, Gibson 20, Gwathmey 15, Rosado 10; Gwathmey 8 rebs; Melendez 5 assts) d BRAZIL 89 (Dantas 26, Teixeira 19, De Souza 15, Paixao, Costa 10; Dantas 15 rebs; Costa 9 assts) in Overtime {83-83}.

Feb 7

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