Australia tops Spain to reach FIBA World Cup gold medal game, will face USA

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SAN CRISTOBAL DE LA LAGUNA, TENERIFE, SPAIN – Australia broke the hearts of the standing room only crowd of approximately 5,100 mostly Spanish fans who packed the Pabellon de Santiago Martin in San Cristobal de La Laguna, in Tenerife, Spain, on Saturday night, defeating the hosts, 72-66, in the semifinals of the 2018 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup, in a game that went down to the wire.

The game became an object lesson in the dominance of Australian star Elizabeth Cambage, who earned player-of-the-game honors after leading her team to the victory with a 33-point, 15-rebound performance that also featured two assists and four blocked shots but seven turnovers. Many of Cambage’s buckets were scored with two-to-three Spanish defenders hanging on to her jersey. With Cambage on the floor, Australia flourished; when she had to sit down, as she did several times over the course of the night, playing with four personal fouls, including one technical, Spain rallied.

The 6-8 Australian center dominated, as she has done throughout this tournament, which she leads in scoring (27.2 points per game), field-goal percentage (68.4 percent) and blocks (12 over the Aussies’ five games).  She also ranks third on the tournament’s leader board in rebounding (9.8 per game). In the process, she restored her country to the top of the women’s world basketball stage, with a chance at a World Cup gold-medal that has eluded them since 2006. But she did so in a way that drew the ire of the Spanish crowd, at one point sticking her tongue out as she passed by the Spanish bench, a gesture the officiating team missed, and at another pounding her chest, which the referees spotted, interpreted as taunting and penalized with the technical. As a result, the finish of the hard-fought performance by both sides, as well as the announcement of Cambage’s well-deserved player-of-the-game honors, were marred by sustained booing and whistling from the typically appreciative Spanish crowd, and several members of the Spanish coaching team turned their backs on Cambage’s proffered post-game handshake.

“It’s who I am,” an emotional Cambage said of her passionate persona on and off the court. She spoke of her respect for both the Spanish team and the Spanish people, and in particular for their fans’ own passion in supporting their team. She claimed that the booing and jeering fueled her, quoting Kanye West’s lyric, “I’m living in that 21st Century, doing something mean to it, Do it better than anybody you ever seen do it, Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it, I guess every superhero need his theme music.”

But beneath the “bad girl” persona, Cambage clearly has a softer side, which showed itself as she choked back tears when describing what the victory and trip to the gold-medal game mean to her. “I feel a sense of relief, like I’ve removed a weight I have carried with me for 10 years,” she said.

Cambage recalled how she joined the national team a decade ago as a teenager, only to see Australia finish off the podium at the 2010 World Championship in the Czech Republic after losing in the quarterfinals in Australia’s worst-ever finish. Australia returned to the medal stand, but settled for bronze at the 2012 Olympics in London. Cambage was sidelined with a ruptured Achilles and unable to help her team at the 2014 World Championship in Turkey, as they were defeated by the United States in the semifinals and again had to be content with the bronze. She was back for the 2016 Olympics in Rio, only to see her team defeated by Serbia and finish off the podium.

“I felt like a curse to the Opals,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion.

Then she quickly returned to that naughty/nasty persona when asked what she thought of Australia’s prospects in Sunday night’s gold-medal match-up with long-time nemesis Team USA. “Maybe the U.S. has enough gold medals,” she answered. “Maybe it’s time for us to take home the gold for a change.”

To get to the gold-medal game, Australia first had to get past Spain, a team that matches up poorly against the Aussies. Averaging 6-0, Spain gives up a two-inch height advantage to Australia, which averages 6-2. That disadvantage is exacerbated by the absence of decorated 6-5 Spanish center Sancho Lyttle, who is best known for her defensive prowess. Lyttle was sidelined for the season in late June with an ACL injury suffered in WNBA play for the Phoenix Mercury, leaving a big hole in the middle for Spain, especially in this match-up. In Lyttle’s stead, Spain suited up adopted Spanish power forward Astou Ndour, originally from Senegal, and essentially fields a starting frontcourt with two power forwards, but no true center. Ndour’s roster profile sets her height at 6-6, but that figure seems pretty generous when viewing the slender Ndour side-by-side with the taller and more muscular Cambage.

Cambage led Australia out to an early lead, putting up nine points and five rebounds in the first-quarter alone, and giving the Aussies a 10-point advantage, 16-6, with a put-back at 4:28. That bucket came in the midst of a 7-0 Aussie run, as the Opals held Spain scoreless from the field from the 7:23 mark until Queralt Casas finally netted a layup with 2:40 remaining in the period. By that point, Australia led, 21-8, Casas’ layup ignited a 7-0 Spanish spurt fueled by a trey and a jumper by Ndour, who also blocked a Cambage jumper in that span, but Australia finished out the quarter still on top, 23-15.

Cambage restored the Aussies to a 10-point lead, taking an assist from Katie Ebzery and knocking down a turnaround jumper in the early seconds of the second period, but Marta Xargay narrowed the gap, driving for a layup seconds later. Queralt Casas nailed a three-pointer on an assist from Xargay, to narrow the Aussie lead to five, 25-20, Australia, less than two minutes in.

Fouled by Spain’s Laura Gil, Cambage tacked on two points more from the charity stripe but for the next several minutes, there seemed to be a lid on the basket for Australia whose only points in that span came at the line.

Cambage took a seat at 6:47 after being called for a dubious offensive foul, her second personal.  Spain promptly exploited her absence, as Alba Torrens cut the deficit to five (22-27) with a two-point jumper at the 6:00 mark. Apart from a free-throw (one of a pair) from Alex Bunton, the scoreboard did not move again for either side for the next two minutes, until Ndour knocked down a jumper with 3:52 showing on the clock. Samantha Whitcomb answered with a layup, but Spain replied with back-to-back treys by Torrens, the second of which tied things up at 30 apiece, with 3:08 remaining in the half.

Australia called time, but Sandy Brondello kept Cambage on the bench for nearly another minute during which the two teams traded little besides turnovers.

Cambage checked back in at the 2:24 mark, and if her presence failed to ignite much by way of scoring apart from a pair of free throws, then at least her rebounding helped to stop the bleeding. The free throws gave Australia back the advantage, 32-30, as the half entered its final minute, but Brondello sat Cambage again immediately afterward. Spain immediately made the Aussies pay with an Astou Ndour three-pointer and a long jumper by Anna Cruz, sandwiching a layup by Steph Talbot to send Spain into the intermission carrying a one-point, 35-34 lead.

Out of the locker room, Australia immediately regained the advantage (36-35), with a driving layup from Katie Ebzery, assisted by Cambage. The two sides traded baskets, blocks and the lead several times over the next five minutes.

Cambage tied things up once again at 46 apiece with a turnaround jumper, and then drew a foul from Laura Gil, making both of her penalty shots to give Australia a 48-46 lead at the 3:39 mark.

Allen then committed the cardinal sin of fouling a three-point shooter, placing Marta Xargay at the line where she made all three foul shots, giving Spain a 49-48 lead and launching a 9-0 Spanish run with 3:23 remaining. Two points more from Beatriz Sanchez at the charity stripe stretched Spain’s edge to 51-48 as the period entered its final two minutes.

Cambage once again took a seat after being whistled for an offensive foul with 2:05 to go in the quarter.

A Palau jumper widened Spain’s margin to 53-48. Talbot missed on three back-to-back three-point attempts, then Xargay stripped Samantha Whitcomb and took it in for a jumper deep in the paint to cap Spain’s run and make the score, 55-48, Spain. With only 16 seconds remaining on the clock, Australia took time to draw up a final play. George got Australia back on the scoreboard with a turnaround jumper, but Palau drained a buzzer-beating three to close out the third with Spain on top, 58-50.

Entering the final quarter with Australia down by eight, the Opals set out on a 9-0 run to open the period. Cambage knocked down a turnaround jumper, grabbed the defensive board at the opposite end, and drove the lane only to come up empty. However, Allen grabbed the offensive board and kicked it out, and Talbot fed Ebzery for a triple. Cambage laid it in from deep in the paint to cut Spain’s advantage to a single point, 58-57, then followed that with a put-back of her own miss to put the lead back in Australia’s hands, 59-58, just a little more than two minutes into the final frame.

Ndour responded with a three-pointer for Spain (61-59), but then sent O’Hea to the line, where she made both to even the score at 61 at the 6:35 mark. Xargay missed a layup, but Cambage, pivoting to shoot with two Spanish defenders draped all over her, turned the ball over on what officials deemed a ball-handling error despite all the contact. Cambage recovered quickly enough to get down court and block a hook shot by Nicholls.

That’s when Cambage’s chest-thumping celebration cost her a technical foul. Torrens nailed the penalty shot, and then a legitimate ball handling error by Talbot set up a steal and a layup by Torrens, putting a 64-61 edge in Spanish hands at the 4:21 mark.

Cambage netted a turnaround jumper, again giving a clinic in finishing through contact, finally getting a favorable whistle and converting the conventional three-point play to knot the score at 64 each, with 3:44 to go.

Sanchez fouled George in a scrum for the rebound off a miss by Casas, and George came through at the line to make it 66-64, Australia.  Cambage next blocked Xargay’s shot, missed a jumper but grabs her own miss and kicked out to George for a trey, 69-64, Australia with a little more than two minutes to go.

By this point, the crowd was on its feet, as Cambage blocked a Sanchez’s layup and returned the favor, blocking a three-point attempt by Allen. George turned it over on a bad pass, and Palau drove for a layup (69-66), and on Australia’s next possession, Cambage turned it over again thanks to Torrens’ quick hands. Spain was unable to capitalize on the mistake however, as O’Hea blocked Torrens’ shot at the opposite end, and though Torrens scooped p her own miss, O’Hea picked off Palau’s pass and got it to Cambage, who dropped it in for a layup to make the score 71-66, Australia, with just 31 seconds to go.

On Spain’s next trip down the floor, Allen blocked Torrens’ attempted trey, and Palau was forced to foul to stop the clock. Ebzery netted one of her two penalty shots. George grabbed the board from the missed free-throw and time ran out as Australia won the closely fought game, 72-66, to the vocal dismay of the fans in the stands.

Ebzery finished with 10 points, the only Aussie player to join Cambage in double figures. George pulled down 11 rebounds, just missing the double double with nine points on the evening.

Neither side shot the ball particularly well, with Australia settling for 38 percent (23/60) and just 24 percent (4/17) from beyond the arc. They coughed the ball up 18 times to just 11 miscues for Spain. Australia won the battle of the boards, 53-34, however, and also carried the fight for control of the paint, 32-22.

Meanwhile, Ndour led the way for Spain with 17 points on 75-percent shooting from the field and 35 percent (7/20) from long distance, before exiting the game with five fouls. Torrens added 15 points, plus five rebounds, an assist, two steals and a block.

Nicholls also fouled out of the game, and Laura Gil struggled beneath the burden of four personals.

Palau’s eight assists for Spain matched the eight handed out by Talbot.

Asked what Australia needed to do in order to keep Cambage, whose minutes were limited by the four fouls she accumulated against Spain, on the floor, Brondello pointed to the need for a team effort.

“It’s a big challenge,” she acknowledged, “but it’s a challenge we are looking forward.

She said she would need more out of Australian sharpshooters Talbot and Whitcomb. “They’re not going to go three-for-18 (their combined field-goal performance against Spain) again,” said Brondello. “At least I hope not.”

Brondello, who coaches American anchors Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi in the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, also claimed the advantage of knowing the Americans well.

“I do know them, very well,” Brondello stated. “I know all of their tendencies. But knowing them and stopping them are two different things.”

She also cited the calming influence of O’Hea and the leadership of Cambage, who rallied her teammates, shouting, “Come on. Let’s do this,” when they were down by eight late in the game.

Cambage said she has been getting daily messages to the same effect from retired Opals great Lauren Jackson, to whom Cambage says she owes a victory in Sunday night’s gold-medal game.

“If there is one thing that I want to do for my country, it’s to bring home the gold,” said Cambage, the emotion once again showing itself in her cracking voice.

If Cambage plays like she did against Spain, she might just do that. But then again, the Americans want the win tomorrow every bit as much.

Spain will take on Belgium for the bronze at 5:30 p.m.

Australia and Team USA take the floor at 8 in what is sure to be a bruising battle for the gold.








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