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LJ stars as Opals advance to WC semi-final

Lauren Jackson has produced the best performance of her Opals comeback so far in an 86-69 quarter-final defeat of Belgium that confirmed Australia will face China in the basketball World Cup’s final four.

Now only two wins away from a potential second World Cup gold medal, the Opals’ tall options were the difference at Sydney’s Qudos Bank Arena on Thursday night, with Cayla George leading all comers with 19 points and nine rebounds.

Jackson played more minutes against Belgium than in any other game at her comeback World Cup, and finished with more points (12).

She came on in the first quarter and drained a three-pointer to give Australia what was then a game-high lead of 11 points.

The 41-year-old has scored at least one three-pointer in each of Australia’s six games – no small feat given her limited minutes – and had plenty of success driving through the paint against Belgium.

“I’m just happy to get whatever I get. I’m going to be the best teammate I can be and cheer as loudly as I possibly can,” Jackson said.

“I was retired from the game for so long and I really thought my time was done before all this happened.

“Every now and then it sinks in that this is such a remarkable thing to be a part of. I don’t want to take it for granted.”

Sara Blicavs caught fire early with six first-quarter points to help Australia shake off Belgium’s early advances.

A member of the All-Star Five at the 2018 World Cup, Emma Meesseman scored 32 points for Belgium the last time they met the Opals and was a big loss with a calf injury.

But the Europeans found other routes to score and remained in the fight before halftime, with centre Kyara Linskens proving one of few players able to match the Australian talls for muscle this World Cup.

The Opals rode their shooting precision to a 15-point halftime lead and were particularly sharp from deep, as they have been all tournament.

Belgium came out of three-quarter time firing and had the home crowd shifting in their seats but George settled the nerves with seven points in the term to put the result beyond doubt.

Opals forward Bec Allen returned from the rib injury that forced her to leave Sunday’s game in a wheelchair but played only two-and-a-half minutes.

The win sets up a semi-final date on Friday with China, who advanced to their first semi-final in 28 years by defeating France 85-71.

Australia will hope to avenge the last-gasp loss they suffered against the same opponents at the Tokyo Olympics.

“We’re going to have to play our best game,” Opals coach Sandy Brondello said.

“It’ll come down to who executes the scout to the best of their ability and can make some shots in those big moments.”

Earlier, Natalie Achonwa starred as Canada defeated Puerto Rico 79-60 to storm into their second World Cup semi-final and first since 1986.

There they will meet three-time defending champions the USA, who may be without wing Kahleah Copper after she suffered a hip injury during her side’s 88-55 quarter-final win over Serbia.

SEMI-FINAL MATCHES:

USA vs. Canada: 5pm AEST

Australia vs. China: 7.30pm AEST

Both matches to be played at Sydney’s Qudos Bank Arena on Friday.

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