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Australia's road to redemption begins with win over Korea

Arjun Kalra/ESPN

Eleven months is a long time in sport. Enough to go from medal-less to medal seeker, from despair to hope. Losing to Serbia at the Olympics last year, Australia missed out on a podium finish for the first time since 1992. The big money involved -- a staggering $332 million spent on Olympic disciplines between the London and Rio Games -- didn't make it any easier. What also added distaste to Australia's campaign was a bitter Twitter spat between two of the country's biggest names in the sport - Liz Cambage and Andrew Bogut on the eve of the Rio Games.

In desperate times such as these, change is the preferred antidote.

A new head coach - three-time Olympic medalist, Sandy Brondello, along with a fresh batch of assistants have been brought in, and the team's opening 78-54 win against 12-time champions Korea at the FIBA Asia Cup held at the Kanteerava stadium in Bengaluru on Sunday was just the statement they were hoping to make.

"The first game in any tournament is an anxious one," assistant coach and Sandy's husband, Olaf Carsten Lange, tells ESPN. "I thought we did well even though we didn't have too much preparation as a team for this event. We just got better from quarter to quarter."

Australia finished with silver in three successive Olympic editions (2004-2008), and went unbeaten in the Rio group phase before a rather close, gut-wrenching end against Serbia in the quarterfinals. 71-73.

Leading by nine early in the third quarter, they botched up the final chance they had to level scores at 73-all and push the match into extra-time. Marianna Tolo, who's leading the side at the Asia Cup, shakes her head with a measure of regret. Point guard Leilani Mitchell had found her under the basket but Tolo missed the shot in the dying seconds. "It was horrible, horrible," Tolo says, "A really terrible feeling."

Sunday's win comes despite Sandy and big names like Liz and Abby Bishop not being able to travel to Benglauru. "We're missing probably our 8-10 top players, who're either playing WNBA, or are injured or taking time off, and there's a new generation of players who're getting a chance now through the Asia Cup," Lange added, "So this is almost our second-tier players who're here."

The new-look side, who are playing in the competition for the first time, were up for the challenge. Getting off to a sedate start, Australia led 33-18 at half-time. Korea, runners-up in 2013 and 2011, never really recovered from that. Debutants Alanna Smith and Kesley Griffin ended with 15 and 13 points respectively.

"This (Asia Cup) is new for us," Tolo says. "Teams like Japan, whom we almost lost to in Rio, and China are quite strong. There's also New Zealand against whom we never know what could happen."

Until they were merged into the Asian pool this year, Australia and New Zealand were in a direct contest for the lone Oceania berth at the World Cup, which almost always went the former's way. New Zealand has competed in only one World Cup, in 1994, so far, courtesy Australia hosting the event then. Either way, a semifinal spot for Australia in this tournament, which will in-turn open up a 2018 World Cup berth, seems achievable. "We have a whole new squad, a whole new coaching system," Tolo says, "So we're learning and moving forward."

Bringing in Sandy, Lange adds, has been a great move. "Players like training under her. From here to Tokyo 2020 through the World Cup in Spain is a long process and we'd like to take it one step at a time. We can develop this program over the next three and a half years and can be a force again.

"It's a new run to Tokyo so we're looking forward to the chance."

Australia play Philippines next, followed by defending champions Japan in the group phase.

RESULTS - DAY 1

India begin campaign with win

India launched their Asia Cup campaign with a 92-76 win over Uzbekistan in Division B. Captain Anitha Paul Durai led with 28 points with Jeena Skaria pooling in 12 points. India led 43-30 at half time and the cheers from a Sunday crowd helped keep up the lead. India will play Sri Lanka next on Tuesday.

Division A

Australia beat Korea: 78-54

Japan beat Philippines 106-55

Chinese Taipei beat DPR Korea 77-76

China beat New Zealand 77-48

Division B

India beat Uzbekistan 92-76

Singapore beat Fiji 103-38

Kazakhstan beat Lebanon 62-54

About the FIBA Asia Cup

It's the Women's Continental Cup which will see teams from Asia and Oceania compete together for the first time ever. India are hosts and teams battle it out at Bengaluru over a period of a week (July 23-29). The top four from eight Division A teams qualify for the Women's World Cup in Spain in 2018. India are placed in Division B, where the winners will win a place in Division A - FIBA's first -tier division.