England secured a silver medal at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games after a drama-fuelled final against Australia.
While the Opals proved too strong with a 99-55 victory – the ejection of superstar centre Liz Cambage midway through the second quarter cast an entirely different dynamic on the contest as England sensed the host nation’s vulnerability and went chasing their biggest scalp of the tournament.
Having suffered a 63-point loss in the corresponding pool game, England traded blows with Australia following Cambage’s dismissal and the Opals looked close to dropping just their second quarter of the tournament before rallying late to clinch a 23-21 term which provided them with an 18-point cushion at the main change.
“To play Australia in Australia – in the gold medal match – it’s what dreams are made of,” star guard Rachael Vanderwal said.
“The Liz thing (ejection) was a bit surprising. We just came together and tried to give it everything but Australia is a great team. Hats off to them.”
An Azania Stewart lay-up off the back of an offensive rebound had the score down to 16 to start the third – the same margin it was at quarter-time – but from that moment on it was all Australia as they won back-to-back Commonwealth gold medals.
For England, the silver medal represents an upgrade from their bronze in Melbourne in 2006 after dethroning Canada, the world number five, in the semi-finals. Earlier in the night, New Zealand rounded out the placings with the bronze medal after defeating Canada 74-58.
Defeating the Opals on home soil was always going to be a difficult challenge, however, as the capacity crowd at the Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre implored their team to win.
“It was obvious that Australia was a very strong team,” coach Jose Buceta said. “So we have to be happy, even in the final I thought the team fought a lot and did a great job.”
During a fast start to the match, Vanderwal (seven points, five rebounds and four assists) opened the scoring as she aggressively attacked the rim to make a lay-up. A lovely cut from Dominique Allen shortly after was rewarded with an exquisite pass from Vanderwal.
Four straight points to Azania Stewart (13 points and four rebounds) handed England their first lead of the game, but Cambage (10 points) was proving a defensive nightmare as she went 5/5 from the field in the opening quarter to re-claim the lead.
“Australia are a world-class team,” captain Stef Collins said. “We knew coming in that it was going to be an absolute battle. I couldn't be more proud of this group to get into a gold medal match in the first place.”
“It speaks volumes about this group but I think we can hold our heads high. We challenged them and I'm ecstatic about the silver medal."
With Australia leading 32-18, Cambage’s departure sent the arena into a rupture as Chantelle Pressley (seven points and four rebounds) knocked down a triple to close the margin.
Australian forwards Cayla George (16 points and 10 rebounds) and Kelsey Griffin (16 points and eight rebounds) were able to maintain their control of the paint. However, with England starting to light up from outside, a Mollie Campbell triple to end the half breathed new life into the contest.
"I feel ecstatic, I'm really excited and happy and what a great moment for English basketball,” Stewart said. “We lost to a class team and I'm so happy for them, they played a great tournament all the way through. They are well deserving and they played great tonight."
With the match on the line, Australia demonstrated their big game experience as they pulled away in the third quarter. It was a victory lap of sorts in the fourth as England did well to maintain the margin, but the victory well and truly belonged to the hosts.