Australia’s Opals have finished the group stage at the women’s basketball World Cup with a 71-54 defeat of Japan that means they cannot meet red-hot tournament favourites USA until the final.
The knockout stage begins in Sydney on Thursday and is structured to prevent the winners of the two pools meeting in the quarter or semi-finals.
With a loss to Japan, the Opals would have moved into the path of Group A winners the USA but have now finished on top of Group B with a 4-1 record and will face either Belgium or Puerto Rico in their quarter-final.
Australia and Japan traded blows early on Tuesday night at Qudos Bank Arena, with the lead changing 13 times in the first half.
Bec Allen sat out a second consecutive game out with a rib injury and her presence was missed as the Opals again struggled to find their rhythm in offence early.
Japan enjoyed early momentum on the back of full-court pressure.
Injected into the contest late in the first quarter, Lauren Jackson settled the nerves with an important three as the seconds ticked down to quarter-time but finished with only four minutes on court.
Australia averaged the second-most turnovers of any team at the tournament heading into their fifth game of the group stage but cleaned their ball security up against Japan.
The Opals capitalised on their height advantage, Ezi Magbegor and Marianna Tolo proving popular offensive targets as the Australians worked harder on rebounds and took a two-point lead into the main break.
The Opals ran in seven unanswered points to start the second half when Japan’s early pressure began to wane.
Cayla George went on a late rampage to help the Opals lock up what was then a game-high lead of 13 heading into the final change.
Japan’s wayward shooting brought them undone in their attempt to mount a comeback, finishing with only 28 per cent accuracy from the field, as Australia held on for an important win.
Earlier, the USA defeated Bosnia & Herzegovina 121-59 to set a team record for most consecutive wins at the World Cup (27).
Bosnia & Herzegovina and Mali, who lost to Canada 88-65 on Tuesday, were the only two sides to finish the tournament without tasting victory.
After going through their first World Cup without a win, Puerto Rico’s 92-73 defeat of South Korea ensured they would qualify for the quarter-finals.
Serbia beat France 68-62 in the evening’s other game.