Tokyo: Liz Cambage did not play for the Opals in this Olympic tournament as she tended to her mental health, a decision that would be entirely in keeping with the theme of these Games as athletes reminded the world they exist beyond the sum of their physical parts.
That much we knew. What we didn’t know was what it would mean in a basketball sense. Now we know that, too, as the Opals were strong-armed by a physically superior USA, who ended Australia’s troubled Tokyo campaign with a 79-55 victory in the quarter-finals.
With turnovers plaguing the Opals in the first quarter, the Americans were out and running to an early lead and never looked back. Breanna Stewart was unstoppable, pouring in 23 points on eight of 10 shooting, while towering centre Brittney Griner had 15 points and eight rebounds and roamed the paint virtually unchecked, a domain where Cambage would usually be a contrasting force.
Point guard Leilani Mitchell (14 points, six assists) was a rare bright spark for the Opals but couldn’t do it on her own. Afterwards, she spoke of the frustration at trying to break down the US defence and the problems the mismatches created at both ends of the floor.
“We just couldn’t score. Some of it was that we had open looks, some of it was their size bothered us, we didn’t get a lot of inside looks, so we possibly did settle a lot for jump shots,” Mitchell said.
“We had way too many turnovers, especially in the first quarter. When you let them get out in transition, with their size and ability to score, we dug ourselves in a hole really quick.”
Opals coach Sandy Brondello was forced to throw the playbook out the window when Cambage made the decision to withdraw in the wake of reports of an altercation with players from the Nigerian national team in Las Vegas.
The 29-year-old brings such a presence as person and a player and without her suiting up, the central piece of Australia’s game plan had been removed. Defensively, Cambage is a menace, while the Opals can always get the ball to her at the post if they are having an off shooting day such as the one they turned in at the Saitama Super Arena, landing just 30 per cent from the field (21 of 70).
“It is frustrating. We didn’t really have a good preparation, just with the drama and stuff leading into it. Obviously Liz, who is arguably the best post player in the world, all of a sudden she’s not here with us when we have built our system around her,” Mitchell said.