Young guard Jade Melbourne sparked a final quarter Opals surge as Australia came from behind to beat Japan 72-66 in the first match of their three-game women’s basketball series.
Australia outscored Japan 16-5 in the final quarter at Sydney’s Quaycentre on Friday, overturning a five-point three-quarter time deficit.
With several of their best and most experienced players unavailable due to overseas club commitments along with head coach Sandy Brondello, and centre Zitina Aukuso (illness) and guard Madison Rocci (hamstring) indisposed, the Opals showed good depth to overcome the reigning Olympic silver medallists.
The Opals led by six at quarter and halftime but were outscored 22-11 in the third quarter, when Japan bustled Australia out of their offensive rhythm and started to find some easier baskets.
With Australia searching for a lift, the 19-year-old Melbourne injected the team with energy coming off the bench, proving intensity and execution at both ends.
Incredibly, Japan scored just one point and no field goals in almost the first nine minutes of the last quarter as Australia cranked up the pressure.
Melbourne (11 points) was a pivotal figure in the Opals fightback and proved a key player for stand-in head coach Cheryl Chambers.
Captain and centre Cayla George, (ten points, ten rebounds, six assists) guard Tess Madgen and forward Sara Blicavs were other players, who shone.
“I think Tess and Cayla did a great job, they are the senior leaders of the group,” Opals assistant coach Shannon Seebohm told ESPN.
“But I thought young Jade Melbourne came in and really gave us energy in the fourth quarter and sort of turned that tide for us.
“I’m really happy with how we played, I think the girls stuck to the defensive plan for the majority of the game.
“We’ve got a lot we can improve going into the next game.”
The Opals are set to be bolstered for the last two games of the series at the same venue on Sunday and in Newcastle next Tuesday.
Forward and 2021-22 WNBL MVP Anneli Maley, who has been cut by her WNBA side Chicago Sky, is returning to Australia.
Among the spectators on Friday was legendary Opals centre Lauren Jackson who has made a successful return from injury-enforced retirement, averaging 31 points and 13 rebounds a game for her local NBL1 club Albury-Wodonga Bandits.
That has fuelled speculation she could make a late bid for the Opals squad for the World Cup in Australia later this year.
But asked on ESPN if people, could fantasise about her lining up there for Australia, Jackson said: “That would be a fantasy for sure, but I don’t know. We’ll see what happens and how the body holds out.”