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Aussie women chase elusive basketball gold in Rio

12 July 2016

BASKETBALL: Winning an Olympic medal has become the norm for the women’s basketball team at the Olympics but the 12-strong team announced today are hoping for something different in Rio. 

While past teams have stood on the podium at five straight Games, starting back at Atlanta in 1996, they are yet to claim Olympic gold and are keen to change that in Rio. 

Laura Hodges, Elizabeth Cambage and Rachel Jarry return from the London 2012 Team that won bronze while Erin Phillips and Penny Taylor will make their return to Olympic competition. 

They’re joined by Olympic debutants Marianna Tolo, Katie-Rae Ebzery, Natalie Burton, Tessa Lavey, Leilani Mitchell, Stephanie Talbot and Cayla George

Rio 2016 will be Taylor’s third Games, after missing London 2012 with injury, and she believes that the strength, determination and focus of this side will give them every chance of making history in Rio. 

“Gold is always the goal at an Olympic Games but we know there is a long way to getting the chance to play for that gold medal,” said the dual Olympic silver medallist. 

“We have a strong team and a very similar team to what we had at the 2014 World Championships and I think (coach) Brendan (Joyce) has done a wonderful job implementing a system that we love being a part of. 

“We play Brazil first up and playing the home side in the first game is always going to be a huge challenge in itself.” 

Taylor missed the London 2012 after tearing her ACL just months before the Games and has been determined ever since to get another chance to compete at the Olympics. 

“London was always a motivator to make Rio but it was also motivation to get healthy and get back playing with the girls.” 

Playing for the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA, Taylor is exposed to many of the US players that have long been Australia’s nemesis in Olympic competition. 

“They are the defending gold medallists and are the pinnacle of our sport. They’re always who we see as our biggest competitor and we just want to give ourselves another chance to get in a position to be able to face them.” 

One of Taylor’s long-time Australian teammates is Hodges who will look to make history in Rio by becoming one of only three Australia women, alongside Lauren Jackson and Kristi Harrower, to win four basketball medals in Olympic competition. 

“I think this is the most excited I’ve been when I found out I was on the Team, as I know just how special the Olympics are. 

“Not only being part of this team with a great group of girls but also being a part of the Australian Team of over 400 athletes is so special.” 

Hodges has been a part of a series of camps that have slowly whittled the team down to the final 12 that will head to Rio in search of history. 

“We’ve been working so hard for the last year – there is so much talent in Australian basketball and it would have been really tough for the coaches to only pick 12 players. 

“This team is really versatile, with experience alongside the youth, who have so much athleticism and talent. We are a strong unit but we know we need to lift the intensity even more in this last month.” 

The 32-year-old has fond memories of Brazil having won World Championship gold there a decade ago. 

“The Brazilian fans really get into the sport and go crazy with drums in the crowd.

“We played them twice at that tournament and we couldn’t hear the coaches in the timeouts and had to use the sign language while on the court. Every time you ran up the court you could feel the drums in your heart.” 

Australia secured five wins in their recent eight match European tour but despite some strong results the most positive aspect of the tour was the fact centre Marianna Tolo made her return to the court after a ten-month layoff with a torn ACL. 

Now back at full fitness Tolo, who was Australia’s top scorer at the 2014 World Championships, is ready and raring to go. 

“It’s the best feeling in the world to know I’m getting to compete at the Olympics and I’m not sure it has really sunk in just yet. 

“Coming back in Europe was great and it was amazing to have all the girls behind me and cheering me on.” 

Tolo and her teammates now get a week at home before heading to Dallas to fine tune their Rio 2016 preparations. 

“We get to play Canada, France and the USA who are obviously some of the best teams that will be in Rio. 

“It will be tough, great practice and give us the chance to work Penny (Taylor) and Erin (Phillips) back into the team.” 

Australia will play their first match against Brazil on Day 1 of the Games (August 6). They then take on Turkey on Day 2 (August 7), France on Day 4 (August 9), Japan on Day 6 (August 11) before rounding out the group stage against Belarus on Day 8 (August 13). They will need to finish in the top four in the group to progress in the quarter-finals. 

Australia have won five consecutive medals in Olympic competition with bronze in Atlanta 1996 followed by three straight silver medals in Sydney 2000, Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008. They lost to the USA in the semi-finals of the London 2012 Games before defeating Russia to claim the bronze medal. 

Matt Bartolo

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