Australia’s Opals have bowed out of the race for gold at the women’s basketball World Cup, falling to China 61-59 in a heartbreaking semi-final.
In circumstances eerily similar to the sides’ clash at the Tokyo Olympics, China broke the deadlock with two free-throws in the dying seconds to win the game.
The Opals will rue a low shooting percentage from the field in Friday’s semi-final and will now face Canada in a bid to secure the bronze medal.
Regardless of the result of Saturday’s final, China will leave Sydney having recorded their equal-best result at a World Cup – they took silver in 1994 and have not finished on the podium since.
China were foul-prone in the first quarter and unable to match Australia for rebounds, but shot with superior accuracy.
Cayla George and Marianna Tolo both missed regulation lay-ups in the first quarter to set the tone for a wayward shooting performance across the board.
Australia were in the unfamiliar situation of being outsized by their opponents, with guard Sami Whitcomb proving a more prolific scorer than the Aussie talls early on.
She iced two three-pointers early in the second quarter to help the Opals keep pace as China threatened to pull away.
The 2.08m-tall Xu Han went on the rampage for China, scoring as many points as the entire Australian team in the second quarter (13) to give her side a six-point lead at the main change.
Needing to come back from their lowest half-time score of the tournament, the Australians looked to the youngest member of their team: Ezi Magbegor.
While she could not match the Chinese for height, Magbegor parlayed her athleticism into eight points in two and a half minutes early in the third.
Predictably, Steph Talbot was Australia’s defensive talisman as they restricted China to a miserly 11 points in that quarter. But sloppy shooting continued to haunt the Australians, whose precision from deep deserted them.
When Whitcomb pounced on the loose ball and charged up the court in the final quarter, the Opals were finally back on level terms after trailing for almost two quarters.
A Talbot lay-up gave Australia the lead for the first time since the second period but the sides continued to go blow for blow.
Talbot turned the ball over in the final minute and China’s Wang Siyu streaked away to level the scores at 59-59 and force an Australian timeout.
Wang stepped up to the stripe after being fouled by Whitcomb in the final four seconds and made both shots to restore China’s lead.
After an Australian timeout, Magbegor had the chance to draw the scores level after the restart but her shot bounced off the rim and the Chinese were home.
WORLD CUP MEDAL MATCHES – Qudos Bank Arena on Saturday
Third-place game: Canada v Australia: 1pm AEST
Final: USA v China: 4pm AEST