The Opals don’t need Liz Cambage anymore.
They proved that with a resurgent bronze medal-winning performance at the FIBA World Cup to get back where they belong — on the podium at a major global basketball tournament.
For the past three decades, the Opals have arguably been Australia’s best performing national team on the world stage, picking up medal after medal.
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But Cambage’s meltdown against Nigeria in the lead-up to last year’s Olympics and subsequent withdrawal from the Tokyo Games left the Opals reeling both on and off the court.
Her absence left a gaping hole in the team and the Opals were knocked out in the quarterfinals, marking the first time since 1992 that they had not won a medal at the Olympics.
Cambage’s basketball career is hanging by a thread after she stepped away from the WNBA and both her and the Opals have made it clear she will never play for Australia again.
But moving on without the towering 31-year-old was always going to be a tough task and required some soul searching by the Opals.
Credit must go to coach Sandy Brondello for bringing the team together for an extended training camp ahead of a home World Cup and including Lauren Jackson in the squad, which has proved to be an inspired decision.
The Opals had to shake things up without Cambage and a whole host of Australian WNBL and WNBA stars stepped out of her shadow at the World Cup in Sydney.
Steph Talbot and Marianna Tolo produced their best performances for Australia and carried the team on their back at times.
Bec Allen shot the lights out before getting injured, energiser bunny Sami Whitcomb was a workhorse at point guard, Cayla George showed why she’s a heart and soul player, while Sara Blicavs and Kristy Wallace also had superb moments.
And that’s without mentioning Ezi Magbegor, who didn’t quite have the breakout tournament many had expected but at 23 years of age, will be the face of the Opals for the next decade.
All tournament long, Aussie greats Michele Timms, Jenni Screen and Jenna O’Hea raved about how the team had rediscovered the “Opals identity” — a selfless team-first approach that prioritises a never-give-up defensive attitude and doesn’t focus on just one player.
When Australia lost its first group stage game to France, the ghost of the nightmare Tokyo campaign flashed back, but the Opals responded by winning their next five games to progress through to the medal rounds.
Brondello wasn’t afraid to mix up the starting line-up and use her full squad, although it must be said the call to play Jackson for just three minutes in the semi-final loss against China was a peculiar one and arguably cost Australia a spot in the gold medal game.
Regardless, it’s clear the Opals have put the events of Tokyo behind them and proved they can win without Cambage.
That would have been no easy feat, with former captain O’Hea admitting she was still coming to terms with Cambage’s shock exit.
Asked if the Opals have turned a corner in the post-Cambage era, Australian basketball legend Gaze told news.com.au: “I think there’s no doubt about that.
“The way they played in Tokyo with some difficult circumstances there was not how we’ve seen the Opals over the past 20 to 25 years. There was clearly some cultural issues going on. “They’ve been able to address those and I think they’re coming out the other end of it looking like they’re getting back on track.”
The Boomers great said there was no doubt Jackson sprinkled some much-needed magic dust both on and off the court, and her remarkable 30-point haul in the bronze medal match against Canada certainly helped.
“The balance of the team they’ve got now with Lauren coming back in probably more to address some of those leadership and cultural issues they’ve experienced in recent times, it’s not just what she brings on the floor it’s also off the floor,” Gaze said.
“I think Sandy has been able to work her way through, make some assessments along the journey, make some subtle changes to what she’s doing.
“Marianna Tolo’s been fantastic, the loss of Bec Allen was a huge blow. To be able to weather that storm was a good situation for us.
“I also think one of the somewhat unsung heroes has been Steph Talbot. Her versatility and the energy and the hustle she brings has been a critical factor in the team’s success.”
Can the Opals now dream of claiming a medal at the next Olympics?
“For sure,” Gaze said.
“You look at their team and I think there’s a nice blend of some experience and some youth. “We’ve seen already, 12 months is a long time for a lot of these teams, a lot can happen.
“I think they way they’re playing. They’ve got some girls that have been together for quite some time.”
Jackson insists she won’t making another comeback but even without her, there’s every reason for these Opals to believe they can be back on the podium at the Paris 2024 Olympics.