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Basketball - 18. April 2008.

Australia - Opals get first taste of Olympic venue

From news.theage.com.au
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Australia's world champion women's basketball team have left for Beijing to get a first-hand look at the venue where they hope to finally win Olympic gold in four months time.

The Opals will contest a six-nation test event at the Beijing Olympic Basketball Stadium, opening their campaign against arch-rivals the United States on Saturday in a tournament that is a crucial part of their Games preparations.

The team will be missing some of their European-based superstars, including Lauren Jackson and Penny Taylor, but there are still five survivors from the 2006 world championship team including Tully Bevilaqua, Hollie Grima and Erin Phillips.

Olympians Suzy Batkovic, Natalie Porter and Michelle Brogan are also in the squad.

"I'm really excited because I have no idea what it looks like," Batkovic said of the Olympic venue.

"It's going to be a good chance to see where the stadium is and how far the organisers have come along and just to get a feel for the court and the rings."

Australia will also play the host nation in the tournament, who are being coached by former Opals mentor Tom Maher, while Korea, Cuba and New Zealand round out the competition.

The teams will play off for medals next Saturday and coach Jan Stirling won't be making any excuses about the talent at her disposal.

Jackson, Taylor, Belinda Snell and Kristi Harrower are certain selections for the Olympic Games, but Stirling says around six or seven positions are still up for grabs.

"We've got a good group here and we've got to be competitive," she said.

"We don't have Lauren and we don't have Penny, but we still have a quality group of 12 athletes and they're all vying for an Olympic position.

"There's certainly an open-door policy on that Olympic selection."

The Opals have won medals at every Olympic Games and world championships since the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, when they claimed bronze.

While they've been in the top three ever since, it wasn't until the 2006 world titles in Brazil that they finally stood atop the podium, beating Russia in the gold medal game and leaving the US with bronze.

Stirling knows that, regardless of the players in her squad, the Opals are still expected to be highly competitive.

"We're the Opals so we have to perform well," she said.

"I'm sure people will be ringing the phone at Basketball Australia if we lose.

"Our focus is to play well and keep building on what we've built on from the worlds."

Opals squad: Suzy Batkovic, Tully Bevilaqua, Abby Bishop, Michelle Brogan, Renae Camino, Rohanee Cox, Hollie Grima, Emily McInerny, Erin Phillips, Natalie Porter, Alicia Poto, Emma Randall.

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