Katie-Rae Ebzery admits she “needed a moment alone” after Australia clinched their place among the world’s best in Tokyo later this year with a to-the-wire 86–72 victory over Brazil in the Olympics qualification duel.
Just over 1,250 days after the Opals—and Newcastle stars Ebzery and Leilani Mitchell—fell to a shock 71–73 loss at the hands of darkhorses Serbia in Rio de Janeiro, the Australia team clinched their return to the Olympics.
For Ebzery, who stands as just one of seven remaining Opals still wearing the green and gold after the damned 2016 campaign, and the only Aussie star to have been involved in every Opals run since Rio, it was an “overwhelming” moment.
Across the court, teammates like fellow Newy star Mitchell, global superstar Liz Cambage, and Bec Allen—all of whom rounded out the Opals top scoring charts for the evening—were celebrating. Ebzery revealed she stepped away for a moment.
“We were trying to book our ticket to the Olympics but the ramifications were that if we didn’t do well, we weren’t going. That’s a pretty big pressure situation. It was a bit overwhelming when the game ended,” she admitted.
And who can blame her? As the Opals battled on, the 30-year-old said the game felt like it stretched for a lifetime.
There was a moment Brazil even led, 55–52 at the death of the third, where it felt like they’d miss out completely.
In the end, hefty hauls for Cambage (29), Allen (16), and Newcastle’s newest convert Mitchell (19) paid dividends.
Mitchell even found a key seven-point run to break Brazil’s lead. Australia led at the end of the third, 61–60.
The victory didn’t come easy. Brazil have never missed an Olympics campaign since 1988, and fought tooth and nail for another chance.
In the end, though, Ebzery, Mitchell, and the Opals succeeded, and the Newy duo are now set to become two-time Olympians.
“That game felt like it went forever… it was pretty mentally challenging,” Ebzery admitted. “After it was all over, I needed a second to myself. It was nice to reflect, and it was nice for the game to be over.”
It had been a gruelling run in, Ebzery added, and one that had been stacked with Opal commitments, WNBL fixtures, and more. “We’d never experienced having to qualify this way, so it took a lot of games, and a lot of work,” she said.
The huge workload—bigger than anything the Australia roster had experienced before leading into tournaments like the World Cup—was that the team under Sandy Brondello’s watchful eye have formed a deeper bond than ever before.
“The only way to build chemistry is by playing together, and I think we got a lot of that during this tournament. It’d difficult to bring a group together – even one of the calibre of the players we have,” Ebzery said of the team bonding.
“It takes a while to build chemistry. You need to play games. That’s how you get better.
“We’ll have a lot of time together in the lead up to do that and put ourselves in the best position possible to be successful.”
Away from the Opals, the Novocastrian is also facing an unknown future.
After scooping up the player of the year award for Perth Lynx, and being named among the national league’s top players despite missing the finals, Ebzery finds herself a free agent.
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There’s plenty of options for the WNBL superstar. Her sister plays in Townsville, and former Hunters coach Shannon Seebohm holds the reigns at Fire too. Or, Ebzery could eye a return to Sydney with the Flames, where she played in 2017-18.
For now, however, the Opals veteran says she has both eyes on Tokyo. After cresting her 30th birthday, she knows she may not have many campaigns left. The 2024 World Cup may even be a stretch. She’s making the most of whatever she can right now.
Under Brondello’s reign, that has meant slotting into a variety of roles, and the Novocastrian star admits she may do that again once the Opals arrive in Tokyo looking to make amends for their Rio failures.
“I’ve learned how to adapt and fill whatever role is needed. That’s what I need to do in this Opals squad because there is so much talent. I’ve played a few years at point-guard which changes the way I play a little bit,” Ebzery said.
“There have been personnel changes and that determines how you play as well. What I try to do is fit into the team and contribute in the best way I possibly can. I try to keep growing because there’s always growth and opportunities to learn.
“For me, it’s just an honour being able to represent my country. I dreamed of that from a young age and any opportunity I get to do that, I do it with pride. It’s never a question of whether I’m available. Playing for Australia is the top of what we do.”