Opals beat NZ in first Olympic qualifier

Australia’s women’s basketball team are one win away from securing a place at next year’s Rio Olympics after beating New Zealand by 20 points in the first of two qualifying games.

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The 61-41 victory at a packed Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne on Saturday extended the Opals’ unbeaten record against the Tall Blacks in the Oceania championships, dating back to 1974.

A win, or even a loss by 19 points or less, in the second leg in Tauranga, New Zealand, on Monday and they will automatically qualify for the 2016 Olympics.

If successful, it’ll mark their sixth Games in a row – having contested and medalled at each since Atlanta in 1996.

Coach Brendan Joyce gave all 12 players a run, but it was skipper Suzy Batkovic who led the way with 16 points and seven rebounds.

Tessa Lavey had nine points and 11 rebounds, while Rachel Jarry continued her impressive return from a long-term knee injury with eight points.

While the world No.2 side were dominant in defence, they struggled in front of the basket most of the night.

They landed just 21 from 72 shots, including six of 31 from the three-point line.

Joyce said keeping the Tall Ferns to 41 points shouldn’t be underestimated, but rued their shooting percentage.

“We didn’t shoot well, but defensively the girls were incredible,” he said.

“They handled it really well and they deserve this win.

“We went out there and there was hardly an empty seat at the beginning of the game.

“These girls deserve to be household names and tonight they become household names – they won by 20 at home and we’re going to get ready for the next one.”

The Tall Ferns were no better, shooting at 21 per cent.

But like Joyce, coach Kennedy Kereama was happy with his side’s defensive effort.

“The margin I’m probably not that pleased with, but the actual scoreline we held Australia to I’m very happy with,” he said.

“I think that’s a beatable scoreline for us. It’s realistic.

“I think we’ll go into the next game with a bit of confidence knowing that, defensively, we really took the Australian team out of their rhythm.”

The game, as part of a double-header with the Boomers, attracted more than 13,000 fans – the biggest basketball crowd in Australia since the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

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