Top-strength Opals set for last frontier
Opals coach Jan Stirling has picked the team she feels can finally find a way past the mighty Americans and secure a first Olympic basketball gold medal in Beijing.
Captain Lauren Jackson and fellow superstar Penny Taylor headline the 12-woman squad announced on Friday, which contains 10 members of the victorious 2006 world championship side.
Jackson marked the occasion by pouring in a season-high 33 points in WNBA club Seattle's 84-71 triumph over Washington.
The Opals have never beaten the United States in Olympic competition, losing gold medal matches to them at the past two Games, but Stirling believes that could finally be about to change.
"The coaches and I are really excited at the team we have put together for these Games," she said.
"The team is even better than the one we took to the world championships and facing off against Brazil (in two warm-up games later this month) will give us the preparation we need.
"Since winning gold in Sao Paulo (in 2006), the athletes have been steadily improving and with the addition of Rohanee Cox we are going to be really strong."
Cox and the then-injured Suzy Batkovic are the two new faces that weren't part of the world championship-winning team, replacing defensive specialist Emily McInerney and the retired Jenny Whittle.
Following the games against Brazil in Wollongong and Sydney, the Opals head to China for the FIBA Diamond Ball, a warm-up event also featuring the US, world championship runners-up Russia, Latvia, Mali and the host nation.
In an encouraging sign of Australia's depth, a team missing Jackson and Taylor swept Russia 3-0 in a tour of Italy last month.
Taylor decided to skip the current WNBA season with defending champions Phoenix to rest and make sure she was ready for the Beijing Games, her second Olympic campaign.
The Most Valuable Player ahead of Jackson at the 2006 world titles is excited about the team that will head to China.
"I'm really proud of the team going over," she said.
"It's great to have the time to train together and we really do have strength in every position."
Jackson has been granted permission to miss five WNBA games with the Storm so she can return home later this month to join her national teammates.
Jackson, Taylor, point guard Kristi Harrower, shooting guard Belinda Snell and centre Suzy Batkovic are world-class players and will likely form the starting five in Beijing.
Townsville guard Cox is the only really new addition to the balanced squad and is pinching herself at the opportunity in front of her.
"I'm ecstatic, absolutely over the moon," she said.
"To be playing with the likes of Lauren, Penny and Kristi Harrower is such a great opportunity, a dream come true.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I just want to go out there and be the best that I can be."
Australia: Suzy Batkovic, Tully Bevilaqua, Rohanee Cox, Hollie Grima, Kristi Harrower, Lauren Jackson (capt), Erin Phillips, Emma Randall, Jenni Screen, Belinda Snell, Laura Summerton, Penny Taylor.
Brought to you by