Lauren Jackson becomes all-time women's Olympic high scorer as Australia wears down China to advance
LONDON -- So often the focus is on the stars, but even though Liz Cambage (Tulsa Shock) scored a game-high 17 points for Australia, the reason the Opals beat China, 75-60, in the quarterfinals of the London 2012 Olympic competition in women's basketball today wasn’t the 6-8 20-year-old sensation, nor even the all-around play or record-breaking scoring of superstar Lauren Jackson (Seattle Storm). The real reason for the win was the depth of Australian roster.
Of course, there was good reason for Australians to celebrate the achievements of one of their stars. Though numerous media outlets, relying on erroneous information that originated with FIBA, the international governing body of the sport for both men and women, had prematurely reported Jackson as having set a new Olympic career scoring record for women's basketball competition last week against Brazil, this time it's definite -- or as close to it as you can get in a sport with no reliable record book: With her final shot of the day and her 12th point of today's game against China, Jackson, who is competing here on an injured ankle, surpassed the record of 535 points previously held by Brazil's Janeth Arcain (Houston Comets) -- not Lisa Leslie, as others had incorrectly announced -- during her Olympic appearances in Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000. The record-breaking bucket came as Jackson roped in a pass from Belinda Snell on a fast break and laid it in to cap a 12-1 run for the Opals with 3:46 remaining in the game.
Last week, FIBA had incorrectly informed broadcasters and some members of the print and online media before Australia's Aug. 1 preliminary-round game with Brazil that Jackson was within 10 points of breaking the all-time Olympic scoring record, which FIBA at the time asserted was held by the USA's Lisa Leslie who accumulated 488 points while leading Team USA to four consecutive gold-medal Olympic finishes. When Jackson put up 18 points against Brazil, NBC, ESPN, the Associated Press, Reuters, the Olympic News Service and a host of other print and online media outlets, relying on FIBA's information without checking further, widely published the misinformation.
While fully cognizant of Leslie's many historic achievements, FullCourt.com questioned the source and verity of the alleged "record," however, because U.S. players typically play far fewer minutes per game than athletes from countries with lesser depth, and as a result, rarely tend to find themselves at the top of the sport's leaderboards in international competition. It seemed more likely that the all-time record would belong to a player such as Brazil or Russia that had made repeated Olympic appearances but that played its stars for closer to 35-to-40 minutes per game. We declined to publish the information until it had been verified, and were still awaiting confirmation of the source of the "record" when FIBA subsequently announced on Twitter that it had been wrong. Full Court was thus spared the embarrassment suffered by others who had rushed to be first with the dubious announcement only to find themselves having to correct or withdraw their stories when after learning they were inaccurate.
"Regarding the question of Lauren Jackson becoming the all-time women's Olympic scoring record holder during Australia's game with Brazil, FIBA can confirm that there was a duplicate of the Brazilian former player Janeth Arcain in FIBA's database," FIBA said hours after its erroneous information had been published by most of the media reporting on Olympic basketball.
"Accordingly, Janeth Arcain Olympic points total is 535, making her the current all-time women's Olympic scoring record holder. She leads Lauren Jackson, currently second with 497 points."
Why having a "duplicate" of Arcain in their database should have led to an under-reporting of her Olympic points total, which FIBA had then listed as third overall, how they had managed to overlook Arcain's record when the putative "breaking" of the record had occurred in a game against Brazil, and why they opted to "correct" their error on Twitter rather than issuing and distributing a press release, has still not been explained, which has many reporters covering basketball here in London gun-shy about reporting any records at all.
Leslie is, in fact, the third-best female scorer in Olympic basketball with a career total of 488 points, according to FIBA, and remains the USA's top scorer in Olympic competition, according to USA Basketball, which maintains reliable records on the accomplishments of American players but has no record-keeping responsibilities when it comes to the achievements of the world's other players.
Responding on TV when told last week that her record had been broken, Leslie warmly congratulated her one-time rival.
"Lauren Jackson is such a great offensive player," said Leslie, who was providing color commentary for the Olympic broadcast at the time. "Her ability to score has been phenomenal since she stepped on the scene at age 17. Records are made to be broken, and I wish her all the best of luck as she continues in her journey and hopes of getting a gold medal."
When informed that she had become the all-time Olympic high scorer in the women's game, Jackson, the three-time MVP of the WNBA, who led the Opals to gold in the World Championships in 2006 and to three-consecutive Olympic silver medals and has also taken her club teams to titles in the WNBA, the Euroleauge, and in Russian and Australian leagues, modestly replied that it was "nice" but little more.
"[It's] been a unique Olympics for Lauren so far, obviously being a flag bearer for Australia," said Australia head coach Carrie Graf. "This is another great milestone in her career. I think if you ask her she would sooner swap that achievement for an Olympic gold medal this year or possibly a win against France the other day," Graf continued, referring to Australia's 74-70 overtime loss to France in pool play last week, which led to the Opals' second-place finish in pool play and ultimately to an early meeting with the United States in the semifinals, where one or the other will be relegated to contending for the bronze come Saturday.
"I think it speaks volumes of her impact in basketball with what she has achieved and being an icon in Australia as well as women's basketball in Australia around the world."
Though Cambage has risen to take up some of the scoring and rebounding slack once required of Jackson, the Opals know they can turn to their captain when the chips are down.
"If we need a basket, our whole team knows we can jump on her back and she'll deliver for us," said Australian guard Jenna O'Hea (Los Angeles Sparks).
"It's not just of the offensive end," O'Hea added. "She'll come up with a big block on the defensive end when we need it or a massive rebound when we need it. She's able to do everything on the basketball court and it's very special to play with her."
As for Jackson's talented understudy, Cambage seemed out of sync in the first half but rallied in the second. was first to admit that her focus early in the game had been in the wrong place.
"Personally, I wasn't focused," she stated. "I was already focused on USA. There were some bad decisions by me, but we got the win, so now onto the USA."
"It's a personal thing," she added of her lack of concentration. "I'm young; it's something I need to work on. Knowing we had to win this game to get to the semis, then when we get to the semis we are facing Team USA -- that's a pretty big thing to have in the back of your mind."
"She wasn't really in the game defensively," said Graf. "Some words were said to her at half-time, and she adjusted. It will make her more focused for the next game."
Whatever those words were, they had their intended effect, but Graf's comments also reflect the high expectations she and the team have of their young star. Cambage put up six points in the opening half -- but among the Australians, only Jackson had more, with just seven. Cambage also grabbed five boards and handed off an assist in the opening half, despite being relegated to the bench for more than seven minutes.
But after the break, Cambage raised her level of play significantly, added 11 more points to her tally, and grabbing two additional rebounds to finish with seven, but even more importantly, grabbing two steals, blocking a shot, and drawing five fouls by the Chinese, who couldn't seem to stop her without fouling.
"I didn't do anything in the first half," Cambage said, laughing, "so I thought maybe I should try and do something in the second. I had a very rocky start; I wasn't there defensively, and I thought I'd give it a red hot go in the second half."
Still, while Australia could not have seized the victory without the contributions of Cambage and Jackson, who finished with more than a third of the Opals' points (29) between them, it is also the case that even their combined scoring prowess might not have been enough without more -- i.e., the depth of the Aussie team, and especially its young bench -- to break open a game that stayed tight for three quarters, with four ties and eight lead changes.
The Australians jumped out to an early lead in the opening quarter, as the Chinese couldn’t make a shot and trailed 6-2, but then a couple of three-pointers not only evened the game but put China ahead 14-12. The Opals countered with an 8-0 run, and it seemed Australia was primed to put the game away, when Jackson opened the second period by nailing a trey on an assist from back-up point guard Samantha Richards to bring the score to 25-16, giving Australia its largest lead to that point, nine points.
But China answered with a 7-0 run over the next five minutes, battling back to bring themselves back to within two, 25-23. China then outscored the Australians 11-8 over the final three-and-a-half minutes of the first half, which doesn't sound that bad until one considers that only the final two of those Australian points, stemming a buzzer-beating jump shot by Abby Bishop, came from field goals, while the remainder came at the foul line. At the intermission, China led by one, 36-35.
The break gave the Chinese stalwarts a chance to catch their breath, and with Cambage on the bench, Australia struggled to score consistently at the start of the third quarter. For the first seven minutes and change of the third quarter, the two teams traded shots and minor leads. With 2:43 remaining in the third quarter, China, the third-place finisher in Group B and a decided underdog in today's contest, still led the Opals, but now by three, 50-47.
But while Cambage was resting and the Chinese were clinging to small leads, fatigue was beginning to take its toll. Coach Sun Fengwu shifted to a 2-3 zone late in the third period to try to save the legs of his best players, but it was too little, too late. The Australians kept rolling in fresh, and talented, players, and the Chinese had no answer.
From there on, though, it was all Australia, as the big minutes demanded from the six top Chinese players took their toll. O'Hea ignited the Opals' flurry that ended the third quarter, netting three back-to-back layups, two of them off assists from one of the newest players on Australia's senior National Team, back-up point guard, Samantha Richards, who had her best game of the Olympics, dealing out a game-high six assists, snagging three steals and even blocking a shot. Cambage capped the 8-0 run with a short jumper, and all of a sudden China’s shots were coming up short rather than changing the scoreboard. Ma Zengyu knocked down a long two-pointer to interrupt the Aussie spurt, but after a Cambage turnover and an off-the-mark three-point attempt by Chinese sharpshooter and co-captain Miao Lijie, the quarter ended with the score, 55-52, Australia.
Twenty-four year-old Abby Bishop, another Australian National Team newcomer and the fourth option for the Aussies in the post, opened the final period with a lay-up on a Cambage assist, and after Ma hit a three-pointer to shave the gap to two (57-55), the tank was all but empty for China.
Twenty-one year-old Rachel Jarry, yet a third Opals' senior National Team rookie, launched what would grow to become a 13-3 Australian spurt with a layup at the 9:10 mark, capped by Jackson's record-breaker, which gave the Opals a 13-point lead, 71-58, with under four-minutes to go.
Chinese veteran Chen Nan netted a fast-break layup after rebounding teammate Song Xiaoyun's missed three-point attempt. Cambage answered quickly with a short jumper, and Jenny Screen swelled the Opals' lead to its peak of 15 points a minute later with the final bucket of the game, setting the final score at 75-60.
With the exception of Chen's layup, the Chinese did not change the numbers on the scoreboard at all in the last five minutes of the game, and in total, the Chinese managed only eight points in the final stanza.
The reason? The top six Chinese players -- Ma, who finished with a team-high 15 points, plus five rebounds and a block; Miao Lijie, the only other Chinese player to notch double digits, finishing with 13 points and two assists; as well as Gao Song (9 points), Ma Zengyu (8), Chen (6 points, team-high seven rebounds) and Song Xiaoyun (5 points, four rebounds, two assists, two steals) -- all were on the court for at least 25:52, and most for considerably longer (and this after a grueling, every-other-day schedule since the Olympics began). Meanwhile, Graf carefully allocated the Australian minutes so that no one played more than 24:42, and most played substantially less.
It also didn’t hurt that with the tallest of China's bigs out of the equation (6-9 Wei Wei and 6-5 Xin Guan did not play in today's game), the Opals had a size advantage in the paint. Though both teams' rosters average 6-0, China's Chen Nan (6-5), Chen Xiaoli Chen (6-4) and power forward Song Gao ((6-3) matched up poorly against the 6-8 Cambage, the 6-5 Jackson and the 6-5 Suzy Batkovic, who combined for 39 points and 20 rebounds, helping Australia to a 44-33 advantage on the glass and a 14-5 edge in second-chance points, while at the same time wearing down Chen Nan, who is ordinarily China's leading scorer. Chen finished the game just three of 11 from the field for six points, shifting the scoring load to Ma and Miao Lijie, two wings who clearly wore down after playing brilliantly for the first three quarters.
Ma, for example, played 37:46 out of 40 minutes en route to 15 points and five rebounds, and Miao 13 points in 32 minutes, with seven of those points coming in the early going. In the end, China’s top six players accounted for all but four of their points, while everyone who played for Australia got into the scoring column, and the non-starters accounted for a total of 34 points.
Graf explained afterward that the war of attrition had all been part of the Opals' game plan. "China played a good first half; we couldn't get away from them," she stated. "But in the end, [with] our ability to make blocks and execute plays, we were able to maintain a lead.
"One of the big points to come from the match was the young players came off the bench and made a real impact."
Graf singled out Bishop for special praise. "Bishop had a hell of a game," said her coach. "In 10 minutes of play, she played some big possessions, ran the floor and gave us a different look defensively."
Though certainly no newcomer, veteran reserve post Suzy Batkovic also earned a mention: "When you're talking about a street fighter," said Graf, "that is Suzy Batkovic. She comes in and she's not pretty, not orthodox, but she finds a way to spread out possession and give us a great punch, literally, off the bench."
Graf said she had not been concerned about her team's inability to take control of the game in the first three quarters.
""We were confident that if we played our game for 40 minutes we would do well. China played with some shortened rotations, but we were able to run them down with our possession game, and over the course of the game we did that."
Chinese coach Sun Fengwu concurred that fatigue had been an issue, describing the contest as a great game with a high level of basketball for the first three-quarters, after which his team's "conditioning went down."
The victory pushed Australia into a semifinal matchup with Team USA, which can match the Opals’ depth. On average, the Americans, whose roster averages 6-1, own a slight height advantage over Australia who average 6-0. But the Aussie bigs are exactly that with all but Bishop (6-2) and Hodges (6-3), who rarely sees action, standing 6-5 or better. The tallest U.S. player, Sylvia Fowles, stands 6-6, and with Tina Charles and Candace Parker both checking in at 6-4 and 6-1 Tamika Catchings currently filling the starting four-spot, the U.S. will suffer a modest height disadvantage against the Australian post trio of Cambage (6-8), Jackson (6-5) and Batkovic (6-5).
And if nothing else, that Australian post threesome is well rested after today's game.
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