Liz Cambage is the cherry on top for the Australia Opals | FIBA
When Australia’s powerhouse Liz Cambage was ejected during the Commonwealth Games Final in April, Opals fans were concerned that England might be able to force an upset. But players like Cayla George and the (now retired) legend of Aussie basketball that is Belinda Snell stepped up to retain the lead and claim gold on home soil.
There is no doubt in any Australian’s mind that Cambage is the star at the center of the team, but the players that orbit her are the perfect supporting cast – and many of them can go supernova when required.
This wasn’t the case during the team’s World Cup opener against Nigeria. Cambage scored 34 point on 22 shots, she grabbed 12 big rebounds and blocked four shots. She was a colossus, and powered her country to an 86-68 routing of Nigeria.
She continued this hot shooting versus Argentina, hitting three of four. With 3.37 left to go in the first quarter, Cambage was given a break by coach Sandy Brondello, having already built a 13-4 lead, but the gap grew to 21-5 by the end of the frame.
The team was able to let her sit for longer than usual against Argentina – playing less than 18 minutes. Cambage still scored 24 points, shooting 75% from the floor, but it highlighted just how good Australia can be, even without her.
Defensively, Cambage is bigger than most players so cannot be posted up by many outside of the USA’s Brittney Griner. She is also long enough to swat shots easily when she is in good position, which also discourages smaller players from entering the lane. However, she isn’t particularly quick laterally and smaller teams with better shooters may be able to try and pull her away from the basket. That’s when Brondello is able to implement Australia’s quicker line-up, which allows the more unsung players for Australia to shine.
Against Argentina, it was Sami Whitcomb who stepped up. The guard is in good form after winning a WNBA championship with the Seattle Storm. Her defensive motor doesn’t stop, it’s like listening to modern jazz: you might think it’s chaotic and at times aggressive, but there is method that almost always comes together in a positive way.
She is one of the better defenders in the world but Whitcomb can also be dangerous on offense too. The majority of her scoring comes from hustle plays, grabbing put-backs and running the lane after causing turnovers. She also doesn’t lack confidence, or ability, from the three-point line. She hit 3 of 8 from behind the arc and took just two shots inside the line – one off an offensive rebound and a quick half-court bucket after Whitcomb pushed up the floor in transition. She missed just 1 of her 4 free throws, added 4 rebounds, 5 assists and a steal, and it all combined for the highest +/- of the game with plus-35 in just 19 minutes.
One concern coaches have when there is an extremely talented player to build an offense around, is that it goes out of the window when that person is on the bench or injured. You could see this in the NBA when Russell Westbrook rested for the Oklahoma City Thunder last season, or with the Washington Mystics in the WNBA Finals when Elena Delle Donne was suffering from an injury. But when Cambage sits for Australia, Brondello just slots in Ezi Magbegor.
The 6’4 forward/center is going to be a problem for the world of women’s basketball for a long time. At 19, she was considered one of the best young prospects available and received offers from several United States-based colleges before signing with the Australian WNBL team Melbourne Boomers this year.
She is still raw offensively compared to the polished and experienced Cambage, but is still more talented than most other bigs. One strength she has over the Opals’ starting center is Magbegor is her athleticism. Her speed up and down the floor is superior and while her positioning on defense needs work, she has quick foot speed and is usually able to close down any gaps. Offensively, she has a great post game and scored 14 points on 6 of 8 shots in her last outing, along with 8 rebounds.
When she replaced Cambage with 6.43 left in the third quarter, after Argentina had closed a large gap to trail 44-22, Magbegor provided a surge of intensity and Australia went on a 22-2 run to close the period.
Australia’s roster is a list of truly elite players. One of them is Stephanie Talbot, a forward who has spent the past four months guarding Diana Taurasi in training sessions. The pair joined forces on the Phoenix Mercury and pushed Seattle to the brink of elimination in the WNBA Semi-Finals.
Bec Allen is another top flight forward who struggled with her shot against Argentina but managed 6 rebounds and 4 assists, and is capable of much more than her 5 points.
If these women can stay on their game, Brondello could unleash the full potential of the squad during the the latter stages of this World Cup. And the Opals might just be championship contenders in the not-too-distant future – regardless of whether or not anyone can stop Cambage.