Serbia stuns Australia to eliminate women's hoops medal favorite

Team Serbia celebrates their win over Australia in the quarterfinals of the basketball tournament at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (AP/Eric Gay)
Team Serbia celebrates their win over Australia in the quarterfinals of the basketball tournament at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (AP/Eric Gay)

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The knockout stage of the women’s basketball tournament at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro opened with a stunning upset, as Australia — the undefeated winners of Group A, the No. 2-ranked team in the world, the squad pegged by many to give the United States its stiffest test of its run for a sixth straight gold medal — fell to an undersized but hardly overmatched Serbia squad, 73-71, in Tuesday’s first game. This marks the first time since 1992 that the Opals will not end the tournament on the medal stand.

Australia entered the quarterfinal tilt heavily favored to knock off the world’s No. 14-ranked team in Serbia, who had gone just 2-3 in the group stage with losses to the U.S., Spain and Senegal, thanks in part to the overwhelming matchup advantage presented by 6-foot-8 center Liz Cambage. The former No. 2 overall WNBA draft pick and All-Star, who plays professionally in China, led the group stage in scoring and ranked second in rebounding, and figured to loom large over a Serbian side that featured no player taller than 6-foot-5 pivot Dragana Stankovic.

Cambage did dominate inside, scoring a game-high 29 points on 11-for-15 shooting, pulling down 11 rebounds, and serving as the focal point for everything Australia did on both ends of the court. But Serbia made Cambage work for her buckets, throwing a steady stream of defenders and active, physical help at her all game long.

That persistent attention — and the fact that it resulted in 10 free-throw attempts rather than twice that — seemed at times to frustrate Cambage, who put herself and her team in danger by picking up a pair of unnecessary fouls on just the either side of halftime, one with under a minute left in the second quarter and another in the first minute of the third. That gave her three personals for the game, and with five fouls prompting a disqualification, head coach Brendan Joyce was forced to keep her on the bench for significant stretches of the second half.

Australia struggled mightily when it didn’t have the option of dumping the ball into Cambage on the block or lobbing it over the top to her at the rim. While Leilani Mitchell, Rachel Jarry and Erin Phillips all scored in double-figures, non-Cambage Opals shot just 38.6 percent from the floor, and Serbia took maximum advantage of its opportunities with a more level playing field, outscoring Australia by 13 points in the 13 minutes, 12 seconds that Cambage spent on the pine.

Despite that signature mismatch inside, Serbia battled from the opening tip, using disciplined offense to take advantage of seams in the Aussie defense and aggressively turning up the heat on Australia’s ball-handlers and scorers on the other end. It wasn’t the sharpest shooting performance, but Serbia weathered its 37 percent mark from the floor by attacking off the bounce to earn their way to the foul line (17-for-24 at the stripe, compared to 10-for-14 for the Aussies) and by taking care of the ball, committing just nine turnovers compared to a whopping 26 for Australia.

“Containment was a big issue, throwing the ball away was a big issue,” said Australian captain Penny Taylor, a three-time WNBA All-Star and champion who will retire after this WNBA season, and who dished nine assists but missed all seven of her shots to finish with two points in what was her final game for the national side after 14 years of service. “We just couldn’t find enough answers towards the end.”

Australia's Elizabeth Cambage holds a towel to her face during the team's loss to Serbia. (AP/Eric Gay)
Australia’s Elizabeth Cambage holds a towel to her face during the team’s loss to Serbia. (AP/Eric Gay)

The score was knotted at 65 when Cambage picked up her fourth foul contesting a shot with just under four minutes left in the fourth quarter. She’d sit for just 30 seconds, returning with Serbia up by one, but while she continued to punish the smaller Serbian defenders when Australia got her the ball on the block, Serbia just kept attacking on the other end.

Forward Jelena Milovanovic finished a strong drive with a sweet up-and-under move for a scoop layup that put Serbia back up by one with 1:44 remaining. After a Cambage try came up empty on the ensuing possession, Sonja Petrovic — a member of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and Serbia’s leading scorer in the group stage, who went down late in the first half with a frightening-looking left shoulder injury before returning to start the third quarter — drew Cambage into the deep water of a high pick-and-roll away from the paint before dribbling away from the screen, blowing right past shooting guard Phillips off the bounce, and beating Australia’s late help defense to the rim for a layup that put Serbia up 70-67 with 1:01 left.

Cambage would answer by finishing a lob pass to the rim over two smaller defenders to get back within one, but as she did all game long, guard Ana Dabovic had her way with the Aussie D, dribbling into a midrange pull-up jumper that splashed through to give Serbia a 72-69 lead with 27.2 seconds left. Another basket by Cambage with 11 seconds left — one after which she hit the deck hard, thanks to a Serbian defender undercutting her in the air, which could’ve resulted in a foul call and a chance for a free throw to tie the game — kept Australia within striking distance at 72-71, and gave them new life after Dabovic missed the first of her set of free throws after an Opal foul to stop the clock.

But with possession and a chance to send the game to overtime, Australia just couldn’t generate a look, as Serbia’s harassing defense causing guard Mitchell to pick up her dribble above the 3-point line for a contested heave. With precious seconds dwindling away, Australia could only manage a forced look by forward Marianna Tolo on the last possession; Cambage didn’t get a touch before the final buzzer, which left Australia sunk in shock and Serbia soaring in elation.

Dabovic finished with 24 points on 8-for-20 shooting, and Milovanovic added 17 points for the winners, who are competing in the Olympic women’s basketball tournament as Serbia for the first time. (The former Yugoslavia last won silver at the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea.) They advance to the semifinals to play the winner of Tuesday afternoon’s quarterfinal matchup between Spain and Turkey, putting them one win away for vying for the first Olympic medal in their program’s history.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!