When a new-look Opals team claimed the bronze medal at the 2014 FIBA World Championships in Turkey one of its brightest stars was back in Melbourne laid up in a hospital bed.
Australian basketball’s hottest property Liz Cambage, who in 2012 became the first woman to dunk at an Olympic Games, had tragically ruptured her Achilles tendon in a World's warm-up game against the USA and was forced to watch her team compete on television as she began a long road to recovery.
Now, nearly two years on, the 24-year-old is fit, firing and primed to lead the Opals, past the powerhouse Americans, to an elusive Olympic gold medal in Rio.
Despite enduring foul trouble, the towering 203cm centre this morning top scored for Australia with a game-high 22 points and eight rebounds in a 104-89 defeat to the USA, a high-tempo final warm-up fixture at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
Cambage, who in the past twelve months has found herself in the headlines for off-court issues including missing a national training camp to attend a music festival in Byron Bay, calling out team mate Alice Kunek for dressing up in blackface and last week a Twitter argument with fellow Australian basketballer Andrew Bogut, says she’s grown on and off the floor since her Games debut in London.
“I guess I have matured. It is four years on and I am still the same crazy kid deep down inside but I am more of a force on and off the court,’’ she told News Corp.
“Basketball didn’t come naturally to me. There were tears and tantrums and I had no coordination whatsoever.”
Cambage returns to the biggest sporting stage of all after wowing the world with her jaw-dropping dunk against Russia in 2012.
"For me it's just a really great moment of basketball, to be a woman to do something first,'' she told Channel 9.
“It’s a pretty cool thing to have on your resume, the first woman to have a slam dunk at the Olympics.
“It was just a natural thing, I didn’t think about it. It was an out-of-body experience.”
With a prized Olympic bronze medal already in her collection, Cambage and her Opals team mates are determined to better Australia's silver medal finishes in Sydney, Athens and Beijing and snare gold.
“I would love to bring home a gold medal for Australia, that would be history for our women’s basketball team and that’s the real history I want to make,'' she said.
Opals legend Lauren Jackson says Cambage is the key to making history
“Liz is going to be huge for us,'' she told Zela.
" I think a lot of us think success relies heavily on how well she does, and I know that puts a lot of pressure on her, but anyone who understands the game understands how important she is to the team because her size is unmatched.
“The Americans couldn’t stay with her today, they can’t actually play defence against her, she just shoots over them. Liz is stronger, she has great touch, she’s a big body and she’s a tall girl, nobody can guard her. Unless the Americans start doubling or find a way to stop her it’s going to be very tight.”
Opals coach Brendan Joyce has worked closely with Cambage since taking the top job in 2013 and expects his towering superstar to produce a breakout Olympic performance.
“Lizzie with her length and her skills, she has the ability to dominate and so that is our X-Factor with Liz,’’ he told News Corp.
“Provided they (refs) let her play. Sometimes when you are so big you get tough calls but that is a matter of working through that.”
While Cambage is yet to reach her sky high potential, she is in great physical and mental shape according to her coach.
“She has certainly grown over the last couple of years and like all athletes she has gone through her ups and downs and questioned themselves,’’ Joyce said.
“But she is going really well in the last month. She is in a really good head space.
“Her training is really good and she has been exceptional. Even between camps she is working on her game.
"She is getting better every day and it’s really positive.”