Read Marc Howard's exclusive preview of the Opals big clash with European champions Russia on Friday night.
The Opals got their Olympic campaign back on track on Wednesday night with a win over Brazil, but when they face Russia late on Friday night it will be time to kick their quest for gold into high gear.
Australia eked out a hard-fought 67-61 win over the South Americans to improve their Group B record in London to 2-1. That puts them in third place in their pool, behind the undefeated teams from France and Russia (both 3-0).
The Opals seized control of their match against Brazil midway through the game and, apart from a late lapse that helped the South Americans close within four points in the final period, looked to be a far better team than the one that lost to France earlier in the tournament.
Two key issues remain as headaches for Opals coach Carrie Graf however, in turnovers and poor perimeter marksmanship.
The Opals coughed the ball up 17 times against Brazil, a team not renowned for their defensive pressure. Australia also made just 2-of-12 three-pointers against the South Americans, and must start to connect on a higher percentage of their perimeter shots if they hope to beat the Russians.
Russia opened their London campaign with a 58-53 victory against Canada, before recording a 69-59 victory over Brazil and a 67-71 win against Games hosts Great Britain.
The Russians are ranked as the equal number two team in the world, level with the Opals at that spot. They are the reigning European champions, and qualified for London after soundly defeating Turkey in the final of Eurobasket 2011.
The secret of the Russians’ success thus far in the tournament has been havng an even scoring load and tough defence.
Their current top-scorer is Evgeniya Belyakova with an average of just 9.3 points. That is the lowest average of a team scoring leader of any of the 12 nations at the London Olympics. It also makes their offence hard to scout.
As a team, the Russians have been averaging 64.7 points per game. Whilst Australia has been scoring at a better clip of 70.3, the Euro champs have been holding opposition teams to just 57.7 compared to Australia’s 64.3 points allowed.
Russia’s second-leading scorer is naturalised American guard Becky Hammon, who ruffled feathers in the US by choosing to play for Russia at the Beijing Olympic Games. Hammon, a savvy point guard, is a key to the Russian team’s success, and is averaging 8.7 points and a team high 4.3 assists which ranks as the third highest average in the tournament.
Russia’s 196cm centre Irina Osipova has also been impressive thus far in London, averaging 8.3 rebounds per outing which ranks her second in the tournament.
Osipova is one of four players on the Russian roster over 195cm tall, and that quartet should provide the Australian bigs with a genuine challenge inside.
It the Russians’ previous three matches are any indication, the Opals should expect a physical, halfcourt grind type of game against the Euro champs. Australia will need to absorb the physicality and find a way to generate some easy baskets if they are to beat Russia and keep their hopes of finishing atop Group B alive.
Opals Keys to Victory
- Control the glass against Russia’s big line-up;
- Shooters must finally find their range from beyond the three-point arc;
- Bigs must run the floor on offence and look for some easy transition baskets;
- Opals need to do a better job of taking care of the ball;
- Australian offence needs to stay aggressive against the physical Russian defence.
Watch the Opals LIVE on Foxtel Channel London 2 from 8:15pm AEST