The FIBA World Cup for women came to a close just last weekend after two weeks of spectacular basketball in Brazil.
Just like in the men’s World Cup, played only two weeks before, we had a new world champion as Australia won the coveted trophy for the first time ever after beating Russia 91-74 in the final.
The Opals, as the women Australian team is popularly known, were quite consistent all throughout the tournament as they wanted to prove that they could be the best. They had come very close to gold in the past two world cups (Germany 1998 and China 2002) where they twice consecutively won bronze
On a personal note, I feel quite proud to have refereed this powerful Australian team earlier this year on their way to this world title. In fact I had the honour to referee the Australian Opals twice during the Commonwealth Games (the Australian staff openly said at that time that these games, which were rated highly, were a major stepping stone in their quest for a very positive result in the world championships) held in Melbourne last March including the final gold medal game in the same Commonwealth Games when the Aussies beat New Zealand (ranked now 17th in the world) to win the first of their two gold medals this year.
Legendary Australian player Michelle Timms, who had captained the Opals during her long playing career and played a total 241 times for Australia, said after the world cup win over Russia last week, “this makes it two gold medals, Commonwealth Games and now world championships in one year. It is surely not a fluke. Australia is today the real deal”.
Back to the FIBA World Cup, Australia’s glorious run at this championship had a little bit of everything.
They started with a win after a forfeit by Lithuania, who had initial trouble entering into Brazil from French Guyana due to immunisation and quarantine restrictions. Following that, the Opals survived very close games against Spain in the second group stage and Brazil in the semi-final before achieving the ultimate with a surprisingly easily, 17-point triumph over Russia to capture the much-sought for gold medal.
Russia were tipped by many as favourites to win the final after they managed to beat the highly-ranked USA team, 75-68, in the semis (incidentally the USA was the team that had defeated Russia in the last two FIBA World Championship finals. Additionally USA lost a 50-game winning streak in major tournaments). Russian coach Igor Grudin used eight players for this game and five of them finished in double figures (maybe this fact and the resulting fatigue may have influenced a bit the team’s performance two days later in the final).
Russia had a promising start in the final and led 9-2 early on but gradually the Australian team began to heat up although Russia held to a minimal 15-13 lead minutes later, but that would prove to be their last lead.
Belinda Snell, whose incredible 22-point performance was crucial for the Opals against Brazil two days earlier in the semi-final, scored a three-pointer to commence an 11-0 Australian run for a psychologically important 24-15 lead at that particular stage of the game.
Although Russia managed to cut the deficit back to six to 26-20, it was now the turn of superstar and crowd favourite Lauren Jackson to score a lay-up which started a highly influential 11-0 run as Australia now opened a 37-20 lead which was slightly reduced to 43-35 at half-time.
The Australians started the second half stronger. The closest the Russians came was to ten points down, 60-70, early in the last quarter but from then on nothing could stop the Opals as they celebrated this historic win.
One has to mention also a “Maltese” presence in this game as the Opals had Hollie Louise Grima in their squad. This 22 year old 190 cm player who was born in Tasmania and plays for Bulleen Melbourne has Maltese parents and can understand quite a bit of Maltese. Grima had 2 points in the final and a championships high of 10 points in the quarter final win over Argentina.
Lauren Jackson, who plays for Seattle Storm in the American WNBA, finished as top scorer of the tournament having an average of 21.3 points per game.
Penny Taylor, who had 28 points in the final and 26 points in the semi-final, was voted the most valuable player of the championships ousting team-mate Jackson for this prestigious award.
The final was also a great moment for the FIBA neo-president Australian Bob Elphinston. Only two weeks into his four-year term as president, Elphinston was given the honour of presenting the gold medals to the Opals. Whoever saw the presentation ceremony would have seen Mr. Elphinston beaming with pride as he kissed and hugged each of the players when presenting them with their medal.
All in all, FIBA announced that the performance of the 16 teams in Brazil gave reason to an optimistic look into the future of women’s basketball on a global level as the playing standard of all the teams was the best ever witnessed in FIBA history.