LONDON -- Australia's 6-8 center Elizabeth Cambage (Tulsa Shock) made Olympic history today as she threw down the first-ever dunk in the Games' women's basketball competition. The 20-year-old's landmark moment came at the 6:14 mark of the third period in Australia's Day 4 match with Russia after Cambage took a feed from veteran point guard Kristi Harrower and slammed it home one-handed, putting, in the words of Opals coach Carrie Graf, "the punctuation mark" on what would become a 12-0 Australian run that broke open what had been to that point an extremely close game.
Few in the packed house of 9,299 fans, many of them Britons unacquainted with basketball, seemed to recognize the historic significance of what they had just seen, though to a person, those we spoke with said they had very much enjoyed the close game.
"It's about bloody time, I'd say!" declared reserve center and Australian National Team veteran Suzy Batkovic of Cambage's jam. Cambage, who has dunked in practice but never before in a game, said her teammates have been pushing her to make an attempt. As to whether she will repeat the performance when she returns to the WNBA's Tulsa Shock after the Olympic break, Cambage replied almost sheepishly, "You see, that's why I should never have done it. Now they'll be asking me about it all the time."
"It's good to finally just do it and get everyone off my back," said Cambage. "It was kind of like I had an out-of-body experience. I never do it in practice, I'm a bit shy about doing it and it's the first time I've ever done it in a game."
"After I did it, I tried to stay focused because everyone was joking on me."
"It's big," said Cambage -- her coach interrupting with, "like you," -- "but a little part of the game. We've got so much more to focus on. My mom will be crying but I'm just happy we won."
Cambage's teammate Lauren Jackson, was more than a little bit impressed with her understudy's move. "Oh, my god!" she exclaimed. "I have never seen anyone dunk in a game before. I was on the bench and I just couldn't believe it. It was different than Lisa Leslie [Jackson's longtime rival, who became the first to dunk in a WNBA game for the Los Angeles Sparks], because that one was almost a layup. This one was much more a dunk."
Leslie would dunk in warm-ups at the Olympics and World Championships to the delight of spectators who often asked when she would attempt the feat in an international game. She never did, nor have Americans Candace Parker or Sylvia Fowles, both of whom have the dunk in their repertoire. To some degree, the Americans are between a rock and a hard place. The players don't want to dunk in a close game, where an error could prove costly; but neither do they want to throw down in one of their frequent preliminary routs, where a dunk could be perceived as an effort to embarrass an overmatched opponent and lead to ill will.
Australia has brought its full bag of tricks with them to these Olympics, with Belinda Snell having knocked down an amazing Hail Mary from well-beyond the half-court mark as time in regulation expired to send Monday's contest with France into overtime. Graf described special moments such as Snell's extraordinary three and the Cambage dunk as "important for women's basketball," and for getting newcomers, as many here in Britain are, to enjoy and support the game.
"It put a punctuation mark on our momentum run," said Graf. "It was an inspirational play. It is inspirational for women's basketball to see what our players can do and it is plays like this that brings more people to our game."
Even an Australia opponent, Russian point guard Becky Hammon, appreciated the importance of the moment. "People will remember those moments, like Snelly's [Belinda Snell's] shot and Cambage's dunk. They might not even remember that Australia lost [to France], and if they had lost today it would have been the dunk that people remembered."
In the end, it was Cambage's double-double of 17 points and 10 rebounds, plus two blocked shots, that meant most to Australia. After losing to France in the extra minutes Monday, Australia needed today's victory to bring its record to 3-1 and cement its place in next week's knockout round.
Russia had established a narrow lead in the opening period, lost it to see Australia go ahead by as many as eight in the second period, and then battled back to tie the score at 30 with a little more than three minutes remaining in the opening half. Neither side scored for the remainder of the period until with three seconds to go, a silly foul by Ilona Korstin sent Batkovic to the line where she knocked down both to send Australia into the break with a two-point advantage, 32-30.
Hammon scored the opening bucket of the third period, and that, plus one of two from the foul line by Irina Osipova, put Russia briefly back on top, 33-32. But then came the Australian surge. The Aussies were up eight, 41-33, by the time Cambage threw down her dunk, with the Russians unable to hit anything but iron for a span of nearly three-and-a-half minutes.
Russian coach Boris Sokolovskiy wisely called a timeout immediately after the Cambage dunk, hoping to disrupt the Australians' momentum. Though the move did not have an immediate effect as Australia continued to build its lead to a peak of 11 points (44-33), Russia began to climb back into the game at the midpoint of the period, using a three-point barrage to shave the gap to three points with less than a minute remaining in the quarter. However, Lauren Jackson answered in kind at the 31-second mark, again off a Harrower assist, to give the Opals a six-point edge heading into the final period.
Alena Danilochkina opened the fourth quarter with a three-pointer, but Cambage and Harrower answered with back-to-back layups, interrupted only by a pair of misses at the charity stripe by Lauren Jackson, who receiving an outsized share of the Russian's defensive attention, did not have her best performance in this game, finishing with nine points and three rebounds in more than 25 minutes on the floor.
Nadezhda Grishaeva drove in for a layup but Snell quickly answered with a trey to make it an eight-point game with 7:30 to go. But for the next two-and-a-half minutes, both sides went through a dry spell until Osipova knocked down a short jumper for Russia just inside the five-minute mark. After a Jackson layup failed to drop, Hammon netted her second trey of the afternoon to make it a one-possession game, with Australia on top, 61-58.
Two National Team newcomers, Rachel Jarry and Samantha Richards combined to pad the cushion to five points on a midrange jumper, but until Osipova dropped in a layup, then converted the traditional three-point play after being fouled in the process, to make it 65-62 at the 1:41 mark, the rest of the scoring for both sides came at the penalty stripe, where both teams missed as many as they made.
Jenna O'Hea nailed what would prove to be a crucial three-pointer for the Opals to push the lead back to six, but Evgeniya Belyakova got loose on a fast-break for a layup, then grabbed the rebound from a missed O'Hea three-point attempt. The ball worked its way to Hammon, who dropped it in from midrange, to make it a two-point game, 68-66 Australia, with a little less then a minute to go.
After an Australian timeout, Osipova committed an unnecessary foul on Cambage that would cost the Russian side severely when Cambage netted both charity shots, making it once again a two-possession game.
With time no longer a friend, Russia put the ball in Hammon's hands, but Graf had anticipated the move and Australia had her heavily covered. Hammon first tried for a layup, but it wouldn't go. Retrieving her own rebound, Hammon took the ball outside the arc, but was once again off the mark. For the second time in a row, Hammon retrieved her own miss, then fired it to Belyakova, whose three-point attempt was also off the mark. With Australia evidently more focused on defense than rebounding, Danilochkina grabbed the offensive board, returning it to Belyakova, who this time missed a midrange jump shot.
For the fifth time in 30 seconds, Russia controlled the possession, but with just four ticks left on the clock, there was little chance now of avoiding the inevitable Australian victory. Hammon's long jumper was once again off the mark, and this time Jarry grabbed the board for Australia as time expired.
In addition to Cambage's double-double, Batkovic finished with 15 points, four boards, two assists, two steals and a block (but four turnovers) for Australia, while O'Hea added 10 points, five assists, two boards, a block and a steal. Harrower also dealt out five assists and grabbed six rebounds to go with seven points for Australia.
Osipova led the way for Russia with 15 points and nine rebounds, plus three assists. Danilochkina added 13 points and four assists, while Hammon chimed in with 12 points, five boards, three assists and a steal.
With the win, Australia, with a record of 3-1, joins Russia and France which secured their spots in the quarterfinals on Monday. The loss drops Russia to 3-1, while France, which won't play until later this evening, currently sits at 3-0.
France is expected to win today's match with Great Britain, which tips off at 8 p.m. local, 3 p.m. EDT; however, the British Team, which seems to be getting better with every game though still in search of its first Olympic win before its home crowd, should not be overlooked after defeating France, 74-67, in an exhibition match in Sheffield last month.
If all goes according to form, however, much will be riding on Sunday's 9 a.m. meeting between France and Russia, where a Russian win could set up a three-way tie for first place in Pool B. Whoever wins that game, the point spread will also be important in determining, at the very least, which teams get the second and third-place seedings as the tournament moves into the knockout rounds next week.