At Rio Olympics Opals captain Penny Taylor reaches 50 games at major championships for Australia

In Australia’s fourth game at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games against Japan Australian Opals forward Penny Taylor reached 50 games at major championships for Australia comprised of 19 games at the Olympic Games and 31 games at World Championships. At her third Olympic Games, Penny Taylor is captain of the Australian Opals who are attempting in Rio this week to extend their medal winning sequence to six Olympic Games dating back to 1996 in Atlanta. Taylor was a key member of the Opals silver medal winning teams at the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games but missed the 2012 Olympics due to a knee reconstruction.

Seven players have made their Olympic Games debut for the Opals in Rio – Leilani Mitchell, Tessa Lavey, Katie-Rae Ebzery, Stephanie Talbot, Cayla George, Natalie Burton and Mariana Tolo. Only three players remain from Australia’s 2012 Olympic team, Rachel Jarry, Liz Cambage and Laura Hodges who in Rio has joined a select group of Australian basketball players to represent their country at four Olympic Games. Taylor is one of two players who represented the Opals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics but missed the 2012 London Olympics – along with fellow WNBA player Erin Phillips.

Less than a week before the start of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games 35 year-old Taylor told the Associated Press “My focus is on the Olympics, but definitely it’s my last year. [I] Worked really hard to get back and still be good. I want to go out on a good note. My health is something I really had to work had at, and to be fit and stay out on the floor, I’ve done that really well. For me, it’s the right time.”1

From 2002 onwards Taylor has been an integral member of the Australian women’s basketball team,  representing her country at seven major championships, comprised of three Olympic Games (2004 2008 & 2016) and four World Championships (2002, 2006, 2010 & 2014), only missing the 2012 London Olympics due to a knee injury. The Australian Opals have won medals at five of the major championships Penny has competed in, Gold in 2006, Silver in 2004 and 2008 and Bronze in 2002 and 2014, the only time the team missed out on a medal was at the 2010 World Championships when Australia finished fifth.

As well as being a key part of the Opals team achieving this great team success throughout her career Penny has also been recognised for her outstanding individual performances at major championships, winning the MVP award at the 2006 World Championships in Brazil where Australia won their first gold medal in a major basketball championship, and in 2014 when she captained  Australia at the World Championships in Turkey Penny was selected in the All-Star five and was ranked second in the competition for assists with 4.8 per game. With her height of 185 centimetres and her wide-ranging skill-set Taylor can play multiple positions on both offense and defense, although she has played predominantly as a small forward for the Opals.

Taylor has maintained a high standard representing the Australian Opals throughout her career, in all seven major championships she has averaged more than 10 points per game. Highlighting Penny’s outstanding all-round skill-set, consistency and high level of performance she was the only player to rank in the top 25 per game at both the 2004 Athens and 2008 Beijing Olympic Games in all four of the following categories; points, rebounds, assists and steals. Another of Penny’s greatest strengths has been her phenomenal shooting from all over the court and at more than one major championship Taylor has been the only player ranked in the top 10 overall at the tournament in all three of the following categories; field goal %, three point % and free-throw% .

During the group stage at the last major championship of her illustrious career – the 2016 Rio Olympic Games Penny Taylor has demonstrated that she has maintained her status as one of the greatest all-round basketballer’s in the world, ranking in the 10 overall at the tournament in three categories – points, assists and steals, and also ranking in the top 25 for rebounds. Australia have won their first four games in Group A and with one group game remaining have already secured first place in their group.

Representing the Australian Opals at major championships

At 19 of years age Taylor narrowly missed out on being selected in the Australian team for the Sydney Olympics in September 2000. In the two years that followed Taylor won back to back Most Valuable Player awards in the WNBL playing for the Dandenong Rangers and made her WNBA debut for the Cleveland Rockers.

Taylor was selected in the Australian Opals team for the 2002 World Championships in China from 14 to 25 September and was a key player for Australia at the tournament. At 21 years of age Taylor was the third youngest member of the Opals squad with only 18 year-olds Laura Hodges (nee Summerton) and Hollie Grima (nee Florance) being younger. Taylor was one of three 21 year-olds on the team, being joined by two of her team-mates from the AIS’s 1999 WNBL championship winning team – Lauren Jackson and Suzy Batkovic. As one of only five players to play all nine games for the Opals Taylor averaged 13.1 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 2.4 steals and 21.9 minutes per game. In the group and classification stage Australia won five of their six games with the loss being by a point to Brazil – 74-75. The Opals easily accounted for France, 78 to 52 in the quarter final. USA defeated Australia 71 to 56 in the semi-final. At the tournament Taylor ranked second for Australia for points per game behind Jackson, first for steals and fourth for assists. At the 2002 World Championships Taylor ranked 16th overall for points per game, equal 31st for assists, 15th for field goal %, 10th for three-pointer % and equal eighth for steals.

Taylor made her Olympic Games debut at 23 years of age at 2004 in Athens. Penny was one of five 21 year-olds in the Opals team along with Lauren Jackson, Suzy Batkovic, Belinda Snell and Natalie Porter, the youngest member of the team was 20-year-old Laura Hodges. The Opals team contained several players with a vast deal of experience on the international stage with the remaining six players being Penny’s current WNBA coach for Phoenix Mercury – Sandy Brondello, along with Rachel Sporn, Trish Fallon, Kristi Harrower, Allison Tranquilli and Alicia Poto.

At the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens Australia finished on top of Group A, winning all five group games by at least 12 points. In a 39 point quarter final victory against New Zealand 94 to 55 Taylor played a brilliant all-round game, scoring 12 points with a field goal accuracy of 50 %, seven rebounds, a game-high four assists and an equal game-high three steals. The semi-final against Brazil was far closer than most of the Opals games to that stage of the tournament, after leading by seven points at three quarter-time the Opals outscored Brazil 25 to 19 in the finals quarter to win by 13 points 88 to 75 and progress to the gold medal game. Australia’s greater depth was a key factor in the victory with five Opals in double figures for scoring compared to only three Brazilians. From 29 minutes court-time Taylor scored 12 points with a field goal accuracy of 50%, made her only three-pointer, and took six rebounds – ranked third for Australia.

The gold-medal game against the United States of America was extremely close for the first three quarters with the USA leading the Opals by two points at three quarter-time 52-50. USA dominated in the final quarter to outscore Australia 22 points to 13 and win by 11 points, 74-63. Taylor scored a team-high 16 points with a field goal accuracy of 46.2%, took five rebounds and had an equal team-high two steals.

Highlighting phenomenal shooting all over the court Taylor was the only player to rank in the top 10 overall at the 2004 Olympic Games for field goal %- sixth with 51.2%, free-throw % – fifth with 84.6% and three-point % – seventh with 40%. Taylor ranked equal 43rd overall and fourth for Australia for minutes played. Taylor stood out with her all-round play at the 2004 Olympic Games to rank in the top 25 per game in all four of the following categories, points-13th, rebounds-equal 22nd, assists- equal 21st, and steals 20th. Of the players ranked in the top 25 for points per game only two averaged less minutes per game than Taylor’s 23.9, the USA’s Lisa Leslie with 23.0 and the Czech Republic’s Eva Vitcekova with 22.4. 11 of the players ranked in the top 25 for points per game averaged over 30 minutes per game. One of the USA’s and Australia’s greatest strengths was the depth that both nation’s had which meant that neither squad was reliant on their stars playing huge minutes, and as a result Tamika Catchings led USA with 25.0 minutes per game and Lauren Jackson ranked first for the Opals in this category with 29.4. As one of only five players to play all nine games for the Opals Taylor averaged 14.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.6 steals and 23.9 minutes per game. For the Opals Taylor ranked second for points behind Jackson, third for rebounds behind Jackson and Batkovic, third for assists behind Kristi Harrower and Trish Fallon, first for steals, equal third for blocked shots and fourth for minutes played behind Jackson, Harrower and Fallon.

Australia had a far from ideal preparation for the 2006 World Championships in Sao Paulo, Brazil, only having one practice match against the USA five days before the start of the tournament. At the 2006 World Championships Australia won by forfeit over Lithuania in their opening game due to Lithuania not reaching Brazil in time for their game. The Opals had comprehensive wins over Senegal and Canada by 40 points and 32 points respectively to finish on top of Group A and be one of only two team’s at the tournament along with the USA to be undefeated during the group stage. In the eight-final round the Opals won all three games, however two of them were close victories by four and nine points respectively against Spain and Brazil, Taylor top-scored for the Opals in both games, including a game-high 27 points on 10 of 16 field goals (62.5% accuracy) against Brazil. In this game Penny also took seven rebounds including a team-high four offensive rebounds.

Australia won their quarter-final against France 79-66 with Taylor scoring 18 points. Host nation Brazil led the semi-final against Australia by seven points at three quarter-time, however Australia controlled the final quarter 31-12 to win by 12 points, 88-76 and progress to the gold medal game.  Against Brazil Taylor scored a game-high 26 points comprised of eight of ten field goals including two three-pointers and eight of nine free-throw attempts made. In a semi-final on the same day (21 September) Russia upset the USA 75 points to 68 to end the USA’s 50 game winning streak at major championships.

In front of a crowd of 4,500 Australia won every quarter of the gold medal game against Russia to win in convincing fashion by 17 points, 91-74. Taylor scored a game-high 28 points – 11 more than the second ranked player, and put on a sublime shooting display all over the court to make 9 of 14 field goal attempts (64.3%), including three of five three-points shots. Penny also made seven of nine free-throw attempts, took nine rebounds- ranked second for the Opals behind Jackson with 11, and had a game-high three steals in 35 minutes court-time.

With the victory the Australian Opals coached by Jan Stirling won their first gold medal at a major championship. It was the first time that Australia had made the final at the World Championships and Taylor commented “We did know that but it wasn’t something that restricted us at all. It’s an exciting thing to make history, but we knew we had to get the job done first. Now all that stuff is fantastic to think about.”2

Taylor played all eight games for Australia at the 2006 World Championships, averaging 18 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.6 steals and 26.5 minutes per game. Penny led the Opals for steals, was ranked second for points, rebounds, assists and minutes played. Taylor ranked third overall at the tournament for points per game, 25th for rebounds, 14th for assists and equal 14th for steals. Taylor was ranked second for field goal accuracy with 59.3%, 10th for three –point accuracy with 41.4% and sixth for free-throw percentage with 85.7%, no other player at the tournament ranked in the top 10 overall in all three categories for shooting accuracy. Taylor was rewarded for her brilliant all-round tournament, phenomenal shooting and outstanding form at the business end of the tournament by being named the Most Valuable Player at the 2006 World Championships, ahead of team-mate Lauren Jackson.

At the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games 27 year-old Taylor was named vice-captain of the Opals with power/forward centre Lauren Jackson competing in her third Olympics named captain. Taylor and Jackson were two of six players that remained from the Opals 2004 Olympic Games team along with Batkovic, Snell, Harrower and Hodges. The Opals 2008 Olympic Games team was completed by Erin Phillips, Telly Bevilaqua, Jennifer Screen, Hollie Grima, Emma Randall and Rohanee Cox.

Australia progressed comfortably to the quarter-finals by winning each of their first five games of the tournament by at least 15 points with Taylor scoring more than 10 points in each game.  Australia were in control of their quarter-final, leading the Czech Republic 38-17 at half-time however the Opals had a massive set-back in the third quarter when Taylor injured her ankle on a drive to the basket. Team-mates Jackson and Batkovic assisted her before she was carried to the bench by the medical team in tears. After the ankle injury it was feared that Taylor would not play again at the tournament, with Opals head coach Jan Stirling commenting on Taylor’s injury and the Opals prospects of defeating the USA “It does look quite significant at this point in time. If she is not ready to go, then that’s sport. That’s one hole that’s been created and someone else will have to step up. We probably need our whole group but stranger things have happened in the game of basketball.”3

As expected Taylor missed the semi-final against China due to the ankle injury. Australia led by two points at quart-time and thrashed China in the second quarter 21-7 to set up a comfortable 34 point win, 90-56 and set up a third consecutive Olympic Gold medal game with the USA. Taylor took her place in the Opals line-up against the USA but was hampered by her ankle injury. The USA won in convincing fashion by 27 points, 92-65 after leading by 17 points at half-time. The biggest difference between the two teams was shooting accuracy with Australia making only a quarter of their field goals, comprised of 19 made from 76 attempts, whilst in a brilliant shooting exhibition the USA made 33 of their 56 field goal attempts for an accuracy of 58.9%. In 23 minutes court-time Taylor scored six points took two rebounds, and made one of her seven field goal attempts.

At the 2008 Olympic Games Taylor played seven of the Opal’s eight games, averaging 11.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.1 steals and 24.4 minutes per game. Taylor ranked in the top 25 overall per game in the following four categories, points -25th, rebounds -16th, assists -13th and steals-5th. Highlighting just how difficult it is to be ranked in the top 25 of all four categories, only one other player at the tournament also achieved this feat – long-time Opals team-mate Belinda Snell. Taylor ranked fourth for Australia for points per game behind Jackson, Batkovic and Snell, third for rebounds behind Batkovic and Jackson, first for steals and equal second for assists with Snell, behind Harrower.

At the 2010 World Championships from 23 September to 3 October in the Czech Republic Australia won their three matches in group A and two of their three matches in the eight-final round, losing to USA 75 to 83. Australia played hosts, the Czech Republic in a quarter-final and trailed 51 to 52 at three quarter-time. The Czech Republic controlled the final quarter to outscore Australia 27 to 17 to defeat the Opals by 11 points 79 to 68. Poor field goal shooting proved costly for Australia, making only 20 of their 70 field goal attempts for an accuracy of 28.6%, significantly lower than the Czech Republic’s 37.5%. Australia defeated Russia 78 to 73 and France 74 to 62 to finish the World Championships in fifth position. During the 2010 World Championships Taylor played eight of the Opal’s nine games (missing the opening game against Canada), averaging 10.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.4 steals and 21.9 minutes per game. Penny ranked third for the Opals for points per game behind Liz Cambage and Jackson, equal second for rebounds with Cambage behind Jackson, and equal second for assists with Jenna O’Hea behind Harrower

Playing in Turkey for Fenerbache against Galastasaray in a EuroLeague semi final on 29 March 2012 Taylor tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her left knee. After suffering the injury Penny said “A fast-break pass was thrown up in the air, I jumped up and caught it, landed as I would have done a million times, and just felt my knee go out, felt a bit of a pop or a snap.” Penny went on to say “After a few different tests and seeing a few different people I realised it was my ACL.”

The left knee reconstruction was the first serious long-term injury that Taylor had suffered during her magnificent career, with her previous worst injury being an ankle injury that kept her sidelined for the first two months of the Phoenix Mercury’s 2009 WNBA season. Penny maintained a positive outlook saying “Definitely I think that this injury as disappointing as it is may give me a little bit more time on the end of my career.”

Taylor missed the 2012 London Olympic Games due to her knee injury, it was the only major championship that Taylor missed from 2002 to 2016. Australia finished second in group B at London, winning four games and having a four point loss in overtime to France. Australia won their quarter final against China by 15 points. Australia led the USA by four points at half-time of their semi final, 47-43 but were outplayed in the second half, losing by 13 points 73-86. It was the fifth consecutive Olympic Games that the United States had beaten Australia, having also won a semi-final in 1996 before defeating the Opals in three consecutive Olympic gold medal games in 2000, 2004 and 2008. The Australian Jayco Opals defeated Russia by nine points, 83-74 in the bronze medal game resulting in the Opals extending their medal winning sequence to five Olympic games.

New Opals head-coach Brendan Joyce named a new look Opals line-up for the 2014 World Championships in Turkey from 27 September to 5 October, only three players that represented the Jayco Opals  at the 2012 Olympic games also represented Australia at the 2014 World Championships, Rachel Jarry, shooting guard Belinda Snell and forward Laura Hodges. Two of the last three players cut from the Opals 2012 Olympic games squad were selected for the 2014 World Championships – centre Mariana Tolo and point guard Erin Phillips, the duo both started every game for the Opals in Turkey.  Several players that had played for the Opals during the 2012 Olympics had retired, were injured or were unavailable, including Kristi Harrower and Jennifer Screen (both retired), Lauren Jackson (injured) and Suzy Batkovic and Jenna O’Hea (both unavailable). Although Australia were the number 2 ranked women’s basketball country in the world they were on the same half of the draw as the number 1 ranked nation, the United States of America, whilst the third ranked country Spain were on the other half of the draw. In an Opals warm-up game against the USA just over a week before the start of the World Championships Australian centre Liz Cambage ruptured her Achilles tendon which forced her to miss the 2014 World Championships. Bendigo Spirit centre Gabe Richards joined the Opals in Turkey as a late replacement for Cambage. Other members of the Australian team at the 2014 World Championships were point guards Leilani Mitchell and Tessa Lavey, guard/forward Rebecca Allen and front court players Natalie Burton, Cayla George and Gabe Richards.

In the Opals opening game of the 2014 World Championships, a 90-57 win against Cuba Taylor scored a game-high 20 points, making seven of 12 field goals at 58.3%, had four assists and took four rebounds. Australia won all three of their Group C games, also defeating Korea 87-54 in their second game and Belarus 87-45 in their third game.

In the quarter-final Canada provided far tougher opposition than Australia’s group C opponents and after leading by only two points at quarter-time the Opals controlled the second quarter 17-7 to set up a 63-52 victory. The semi-final between the USA and Australia was tight during the first term, with the Opals trailing by three points at quarter-time, however USA dominated the second quarter 23 to 14 to lead 42-30 at half-time. Australia kept pace with the USA after half-time with both teams scoring 40 points in the second half, resulting in USA winning 82-70. Taylor had an equal team-high six rebounds, a team-high four assists and scored eight points – making three of her 10 field goal attempts.

The bronze medal game against Turkey at the 2014 World Championships was Taylor’s first medal game fully fit at a major championships since the gold medal game at the 2006 World Championships, having been hampered by an ankle injury during the gold medal game at the 2008 Olympics, missing the 2012 Olympics due to her left knee reconstruction and whilst she was fully fit at the 2010 World Championships Australia didn’t progress to the medal games. Australia started the bronze-medal game against hosts, Turkey in the best possible fashion, after Australia scored the first 17 points of the game they were never threatened, winning 74-44. Taylor led the Opals brilliantly, scoring 13 points on six of ten field goal attempts and gave a passing exhibition to register a game-high nine assists – more than Turkey’s combined assist tally of seven, and triple the players ranked equal second in this category with three assists each.

Under Opals head-coach Brendan Joyce the Opals played an up-tempo style of basketball and had the same five starters for every game of the tournament – Taylor, Erin Phillips, Rachel Jarry, Laura Hodges and Mariana Tolo. Whilst Jarry and Hodges played for the Opals at the 2012 Olympics, Taylor missed due to her knee injury and Phillips and Tolo both made the squad of 15 before both being in the last three players cut from the Opals 2012 Olympics Games team.

Taylor played all six games, averaging 12.0 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.2 steals, and 23.0 minutes per game. Taylor ranked second for Australia for points per game behind Tolo, fourth for rebounds behind Tolo, Natalie Burton and Cayla George, and first for assists. Taylor was ranked second overall at the tournament for assists behind Cuba’s Ineidis Casanova (5.8 assists per game), ranked 11th for field goal accuracy with 46.6%, 14th for points, 17th for steals and 31st for rebounds. As recognition for her superb tournament Taylor was selected in the All-star 5 for the 2014 World Championships.

After Australia won the Bronze Medal game the captain Taylor commented “This team has been the most together and happy as a team more than any other team. We had adversity staring in the face right through. There’s a lot of talent coming in. I’m so proud of them. I think Brendan has put together a fantastic system, especially in defense.”4

For the 2016 Rio Olympic Games head coach Brendan Joyce retained most of the Opals team from the 2014 World Championships and had Australia playing a similar style of basketball. Only three changes were made between the two major championships with Belinda Snell, Gabrielle Richards and Rebecca Allen from the 2014 World Championships missing out on a spot on the Opals 2016 Olympics Games team. The three additions for the 2016 Rio team were Steph Talbot, 2015/16 All -WNBL five member Katie-Rae Ebzery and Liz Cambage who was set to play a pivotal role for the Opals at the 2014 World Championships before suffering an injury to her Achilles tendon in a warm-up game.

Whilst nine players represented the Opals at both the 2014 World Championships and the 2016 Rio Olympic Games the way that these players are being used as changed considerably and only two players have been starters for the Opals at both major championships – Taylor and Phillips. The three players that have moved into the starting line-up in Rio are point guard Leilani Mitchell, athletic forward Natalie Burton and centre Liz Cambage.

The Opals were been strongly tested in the group stage at the 2016 Rio Olympics and although they won all five games in three of these games they have trailed by a double-figure margin before fighting back to win. The Opals kicked off their Olympic games against the hosts – Brazil and were slow out of the blocks to trail 14-24 at quarter-time. Australia won each of the last three quarters by at least six points to win by 18 points -84-66. Three Opals starters scored at least 17 points each, Cambage – 20, Mitchell – 18 and Taylor – 17.

Against Turkey in their second game Taylor was held scoreless for the first three quarters. The Opals led by only two points at three quarter-time and outscored Turkey 18-15 in the final quarter to win by five points 61-56. Taylor played a critical role in the final term to score five points and make some big plays.

In Australia’s third game at Rio they faced their highest ranked Group A rival – France who are ranked fourth in the world behind the USA, Australia and Spain in that order. Opals centre Liz Cambage who is leading the women’s tournament for points per game picked up two fouls in the first three and a half minutes of the game, was substituted off and only returned to the court for the final play of the first half in which she scored a field goal. Forward Taylor give a vintage performance against France to set a new Australian record for most points in a game at the Olympics with 31, including 17 points in the first half.  Taylor played an incredible all-round game against France, also having a game-high nine assists, team-high three steals and five rebounds. Penny’s shooting was phenomenal, making 10 of her 13 field goal attempts for an accuracy of 76.9% and made all eight of her three-throws.

Taylor reached 50 games for Australia at major championship in the Opal’s fourth group game in Rio against Japan. Australia trailed by two points at half-time and were thoroughly outplayed in the third quarter 21-11 to trail by 12 points with a quarter to play. Japan were outplaying Australia with their speed, fantastic outside shooting and disciplined style of play and twice extended the margin to 16 points early in the final term to loom as almost certain winners. Australia had a size advantage and looked to exploit this with Cambage and Tolo in the final quarter. Cambage was instrumental in the Opals pulling off a miraculous escape to win by six points, 92-86. Taylor scored 13 points – making five of 11 field goals, had an equal team-high seven assists with Mitchell and took six rebounds. Cambage scored 18 points in the last quarter and a total of 37 points to break the Australian Olympic record for most points in a game that Taylor had set just one game earlier against Japan.

In Australia’s final group game at Rio they trailed Belarus by 13 points with less than three minutes remaining in the third quarter and yet again had a comeback victory, dominating from that point on to win by eight points, outscoring Belarus 22-7 in the final quarter. Taylor scored 11 points, had five rebounds and three assists.

Having won all five of their Group A games at the 2016 Rio Olympics Australia finished on top of the Group and are almost certain to play Serbia at the quarter-final stage. During the group stage Taylor  averaged 15.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.8 steals and 29.8 minutes per game. Penny lead the Opals for steals and minutes played, is ranked equal first for assists with Leilani Mitchell and ranks second for points and rebounds – behind Liz Cambage in both categories. At her final major championships Taylor ranks in the top 11 per game in three categories, assists – equal fifth, steals – equal 10th and points -11th, whilst also ranking 26th for rebounds meaning that if she improves slightly in the later category she will replicate her feat of the 2004 and 2008 Olympic games when she ranked in the top 25 for points, assists, steals and rebounds. Taylor leads the tournament for free-throw percentage at a perfect 100%, having made all 16 attempts and ranks 14thoverall for field goal percentage.

When asked what is your best memory of the Olympic Games Penny responded “The best memory from Athens and Beijing would be the Gold medal games, it was super exciting, we gave it our all, we obviously fell short in those games but it is a big moment and a good challenge for us, playing against the best is always the goal.”

WNBL Career

Penny Taylor made her WNBL debut for the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) during the 1997 season at 15 years of age, and after three seasons playing for the AIS she joined the Dandenong Rangers. During her first four seasons in the WNBL Taylor played a total of 75 games, comprised of 54 for the AIS and 21 for Dandenong, over these four seasons Penny averaged 11.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.5 blocked shots per game. In her third season at the AIS the team made the Grand Final and were locked in a gripping duel with the more experienced Perth. With three minutes remaining and the scores locked at 77 apiece Taylor made a three-pointer to give the AIS the lead, the AIS controlled the dying minutes to defeat Perth by nine points, 88-79 and win the 1998/99 WNBL Championship. The AIS team contained several players that would become stars in the WNBL and regulars for the Jayco Opals Australian Women’s team, with Taylor and five of her AIS team-mates – Lauren Jackson, Suzy Batkovic, Kristen Veal, Deanna Smith, and Belinda Snell all  going on to be selected in at least one WNBL All-Star five, with Jackson being selected in this team and winning the WNBL MVP in the AIS’s 1998/99 championship winning season.

In her fifth season in the WNBL, 2000/2001 Penny Taylor elevated her game to a new stratosphere winning the WNBL MVP award at 19 years of age, playing 23 games for the Dandenong Rangers including two finals, averaging 24.9 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 2.5 steals and 0.9 blocked shots per game. During the regular season Taylor led the league in steals and points per game and was ranked third for rebounds, her 25.5 points per game was 4.9 points more than the second ranked player, Lauren Jackson.  Dandenong finished the 2000/01 season fourth on the ladder with 15 wins and six losses, only two games behind ladder leaders Canberra and an amazing eight games ahead of the fifth placed team, the AIS.  After winning their semi-final on the road against Adelaide 83 to 71 Dandenong lost to Sydney 78 to 72 in the preliminary final.

Taylor won her second consecutive WNBL MVP award in 2001/02, playing 21 games for the Dandenong Rangers including one final, averaging 27.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.1 steals and 0.9 blocked shots per game. Dandenong finished third on the ladder, again with a record of 15 wins and six losses, and lost their semi-final to Sydney by 13 points 98-85. Penny again led the league for points per game during the regular season with 4.2 points per game more than Jackson, and also ranked third in the league for steals and fourth for rebounds. Taylor’s 28.5 points per game during the regular season is the all-time record in the 36 season history of the WNBL from 1981 to 2015/16.

To celebrate the WNBL turning 25 during the 2004/2005 season the league announced the 25th WNBL anniversary team comprised of 10 players, Penny Taylor was selected in the team, receiving the sixth highest number of votes behind Lauren Jackson, Robyn Maher, Michelle Timms, Rachael Sporn and Shelley Sandie.

Between her back to back WNBL MVP winning seasons for the Dandenong Rangers in 2000/01 and 2001/02 Penny Taylor played her first season of basketball internationally, for the Cleveland Rockers in the WNBA, and in the 12 and a half years between playing in the WNBL for Dandenong in 2001/2002 and 2014/15 Taylor spent the vast majority of her time playing basketball internationally, in national leagues in the USA, Italy, Russia and Turkey, as well as for the Australian women’s basketball team, the Jayco Opals.

Returning to play in the WNBL in 2014/15 with Dandenong allowed Taylor to spend more time with her family, including her father Michael who was suffering from lung cancer. Penny’s two nieces Olivia and Harper and nephew Luka, who were all under 10 years of age had never seen her play in Australia.

Taylor was extremely consistent throughout the 2014/15 WNBL regular season, scoring 17 points or more in 14 of her 17 games, and in her last 14 games of the season she had at least six rebounds 12 times. Despite missing the first five games of the season Taylor ranked equal fifth in the league for three-pointers made with 35, making 40.2% of her three point shots to be one of only four players in the league that made more than 30 three-pointers at an accuracy above 40%. It wasn’t just beyond the arc that Penny had exceptional shooting accuracy, it was all over the court. Despite more than a third of her field goal attempts being three-pointers Penny ranked fourth in the league with a field goal accuracy of 51.0%, behind three players who took significantly more shots from close range, Alex Bunton (58.1%), Laura Hodges (56.1%) and Gabrielle Richards (51.2%). Taylor ranked sixth in the league for three-throws made with 63, at a WNBL career-best 88.7%, of the 26 players that made at least 30 three-throws only three were more accurate, Belinda Snell (93.6%), Deanna Smith (92.5%), and Kelly Wilson (89.2%).

In late December 2014 Penny’s father Michael lost his battle with lung cancer and passed away. In an interview with Paulo Kennedy from FIBA.com in January 2015 Penny commented, “I was really lucky to be here when my dad needed me and to help him through his illness. Him passing away in December was devastating, but I’m glad I was able to be here for him. He could see me play here in Australia, which he was happy about and he hadn’t been able to do for a long time.”

In 18 games including one final for the Dandenong Rangers in 2014/15 Taylor averaged 19.3 points, 6.6 rebounds,  3.7 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.4 blocked shots, playing 32 minutes and 44 seconds per game, setting new WNBL career-bests for assists and blocked shots. For average per game Penny led Dandenong in points, rebounds, steals and blocked shots, and was ranked third for assists behind  MacLeod and Pondexter. During the 2014/15 WNBL season Penny Taylor improved her position in several categories on the Dandenong Rangers all-time list and in January 2015 moved from fifth to first in a very tight list for all-time points scored for Dandenong, overtaking Jenna O’Hea, then team-mate Kathleen MacLeod and past team-mates Caitlin Ryan and Jess Bibby. Despite missing the first five games of the 2014/15 WNBL season Taylor was selected in the WNBL All-Star five for the third time in her career and finished fourth in the 2014 /15 WNBL MVP award.  Highlighting her exceptional all-round game Penny Taylor was the only player ranked in the WNBL top 11 during the 2014/15 regular season for average per game in all five of the following categories: points (2nd), assists (7th), rebounds (11th), steals (3rd) & blocked shots (3rd).

WNBA

The transition from being the Most Valuable Player in the WNBL to a player who didn’t get a single start in her first WNBA season with the Cleveland Rockers in 2001 and averaged less than half the game on the court was a difficult one for Taylor and a few weeks into the season she even feared that she might get cut from the team. However, that first WNBA season provided Penny with a greater understanding of her team-mates, the style of play in the league and which areas of her game she needed to improve.

When Penny returned to the WNBA for her second season in 2002 she was one of the most improved players in the league and was rewarded with selection for the 2002 WNBA All-Star game. After becoming an integral player at Cleveland – one of the eight original WNBA franchises Taylor faced uncertainty after the club folded at the end of the 2003 season. Penny entered the 2004 dispersal draft and was the number 1 selection by the Phoenix Mercury, the club also had the number one overall selection at the 2004 WNBA draft and selected guard, Diana Taurasi.

After finishing at or near the bottom of the WNBA standings for several seasons, the Phoenix Mercury began rising up the standings after recruiting Taylor and Taurasi. In 2006 with the second selection at the 2006 WNBA Draft Phoenix Mercury selected shooting guard Cappie Pondexter. Phoenix improved in 2006 to record a record of 18 wins and 16 losses – the club’s first winning record since 2000.

Phoenix finished the 2007 regular season as the Western Conference’s number 1 seed after winning 23 games and having 11 losses. In the WNBA finals Phoenix met the defending champions, the Detroit Shock and trailed 1-2 after three games. The Mercury forced a deciding game 5 with a 77-76 win in game four. Phoenix easily won game 5 on the road 108-92 with Taylor scoring a game-high 30 points including all 18 free-throw attempts. It was the Phoenix Mercury’s first WNBA Championship, having previously lost the 1998 WNBA Finals to the Houston Comets 2-1. Taylor and Taurasi were both selected in the 2007 All-WNBA first team and Pondexter won the finals MVP, the trio were also instrumental in Phoenix winning their second WNBA championship in 2009 against the Indian Fever 3-2 with Taurasi winning the Finals MVP award. In the season between Phoenix’s first two WNBA Championships Taylor took a break from the WNBA for the 2008 season to focus on the Beijing Olympics with the Australian Opals. Taylor’s absence was one of several factors that contributed to Phoenix having a disappointing season and failing to make the playoffs with a record of 16 wins and 18 losses.

In celebration of the WNBA’s 15th season in 2011 the league named the 15 best and most influential players of the first fifteen seasons of the WNBA, along with a group of 15 other finalists, Taylor was named in the group of 15 finalists.

Due to a left knee reconstruction Taylor missed the entire 2012 WNBA season. Despite being diligent in the rehabilitation process in recovering from the left knee injury the knee didn’t feel right to Taylor and she required further surgery in November 2012. Taylor made her return to the WNBA for Phoenix Mercury during the 2013 season, however in her sixth game back she suffered another injury, this time her right knee and required arthroscopic surgery in late July 2013, Taylor returned late in the season and was restricted to a total of only 10 regular season games and two playoff games in the 2013 WNBA season.

After being accustomed to playing two seasons each year, from April 2012 to April 2014 injuries restricted Penny to less than half a season of basketball during a two year period. Throughout this time Taylor rehabilitated in Melbourne and also in Phoenix with both Phoenix Mercury and Phoenix Suns (NBA) strength and conditioning staff. During the time that Penny was rehabilitating in Melbourne she was able to spend more time with her mum, Denna who was suffering from ovarian cancer, after a three and a half year battle Denna passed away in May 2013. During Teal Ribbon round to raise Ovarian cancer awareness in Round 15 of the 2015 WNBL season Penny was interviewed on ABC TV, commenting about the need to increase awareness of Ovarian cancer “I think it’s so important to get that message out there, it was something that my mother felt strongly about, these were symptoms that she had for a long time that she wasn’t aware it could be such a serious issue, so for me it’s important now to get the message out there, that just to be aware of your body and the things to look out for.”

In the lead-up to the start of the 2014 WNBA season Phoenix Mercury head-coach, Australian Sandie Brondello was unsure if Penny would have recovered from her knee injury sufficiently to play at the start of the season, Penny surprised her coach by playing in Phoenix Mercury’s 2014 WNBA season opener on 17 May, after playing such little basketball in the previous two years Taylor’s court-time was carefully managed, only playing a combined 25 minutes in the opening two games of the season, and getting her first start of the season in the 10th game, she remained a starter for the rest of the season.

Taylor played 33 regular season games and eight playoff games for the Phoenix Mercury in 2014, her versatility standing out in the three game WNBA finals series, averaging 11.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 2.0 steals per game. The Phoenix Mercury swept Chicago in the finals 3-0 to win the club’s third WNBA championship. When Phoenix led Chicago 2-0 in the WNBA Finals Phoenix head coach Sandy Brondello called Taylor “the missing piece to the puzzle” and went on to say “Once we put her into that starting lineup, we’ve only lost two games. That’s how important she is because of her versatility. It’s great after two years out to see her playing the way she is.”

Taylor missed the 2015 WNBA season but returned in 2016 and played 15 of a possible 24 games up until the mid-season break for the Rio Olympics, missing several games due to a hip injury just before the break.

During her 13 season WNBA career Penny has played 345 regular season games, averaging 26.9 minutes, 13.0 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.3 blocks per game. Penny has averaged more than 10 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists in 10 of her 13 seasons, with the exceptions being her debut season in 2001, an injury interrupted 2013 and 2009 when her rebounds dropped to 2.4 per game. As well as being selected to the All-WNBA first team in 2007 Penny was also selected in the All-WNBA second team in 2011. Injuries restricted Taylor to a total of 43 regular season games and 27 starts in the next three WNBA seasons from 2012 to 2014.  During 2007, the best season of her WNBA career Taylor averaged 17.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.6 blocks and 29.7 minutes per game, recording WNBA career-highs for points, rebounds and blocks.

As well as being a pivotal member in Phoenix Mercury’s three WNBA championships Taylor also ranks in the top 25 on several WNBA all-time lists including points – 21st, assists -20th, steals – 20th, 2 point field goal % – 24th, three point % – 19th, free-throw % – eighth.

European leagues

From 2002 to 2012 in the WNBA off-season Penny played in a national league in Europe, first with Italian clubs La Spezia (2002-2003) and Famila Schino (2004-2007), followed by Russian club UMMC Ekterinburg (2007-09), and finally Turkish club Fenerbache (2009-2012). In each of these three European leagues Penny played on at least one championship winning side, being a member of the Italian A1 Champion in 2006, the Russian Superleague Champion in 2009 and the Turkish League Champion in 2010 and 2012. Throughout her distinguished career Taylor has played in five different national basketball leagues on three continents, winning a total of eight championships across these leagues, including at least one championship in each league she has played in. Three times Penny has been selected on the World team for the EuroLeague All-Star game, 2006, 2007 and 2010. Due to Penny’s knee injuries in 2013 and 2014 and playing for the Dandenong Rangers in the WNBL during 2014/2015 the last time Penny played in a European league was when she suffered the left knee injury late in the 2011/2012 season.

Overview

Given the quality of Penny’s play for both the Australian Opals on the international stage and for the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA some people were surprised when announced in the week before the Rio Olympic Games started that it was definitely her last year of playing basketball. Penny commented “It’s taken a lot of hard work to get back here to make sure that I’m healthy and to be at the level I want to be at. I’m a little emotional about it, really proud and I’m really thankful for all the people who helped me get back here.”5

At the Dandenong Rangers end of season awards for the 2014/15 WNBL season Taylor commented that her number goal was to perform at her best with the Australian Opals at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. In reality it was probably well before this time that the Rio Olympics became her number one goal given that she missed the 2012 London Olympic Games and was hampered by an ankle injury during the medal games at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Due to several knee injuries from April 2012 to April 2014 Taylor played very little basketball in a two year period, since recovering from these injuries she has been able to perform at a high standard  with three basketball teams –  the Dandenong Rangers in the WNBL, the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA and the Australian Opals. Taylor was motivated to recover from her injuries and ‘still be good.’ Penny has well and truly overshot the mark of being good to perform at an outstanding level, being a key component in the Phoenix Mercury’s 2014 WNBA championship, lead a young Australian Opals team to a medal at the 2014 World Championships and be selected in the all-star five at the same tournament. After a lengthy absence from the WNBL Taylor returned for the 2014/15 season with the Dandenong Rangers and played a pivotal role in the Rangers making the finals after being on the bottom of the ladder early in the season, Taylor was selected in the WNBL All-Star five for the third time off her career.

Very few people in the world, male or female have:

a) played for their national team at seven major championships and won five medals including at least one gold medal,

b) been named MVP at one major championship and in the All-Star five at another major championship, and

c) played on championship winning teams in five different national basketball leagues

Penny Taylor is one such player that is in this extremely select group.

At the conclusion of the group stage at the 2016 Rio Olympics Penny Taylor has played 51 games for Australia at major championships comprised of 20 games at the Olympic Games and 31 games at World Championships. As well as ranking high on Australia’s all-time list for quantity of games at major championships very few players can match the quality of performances Taylor has delivered for the Australian Opals over a 14 year period from 2002 to 2016. It is extremely difficult for a player to rank in the top 25 per game for points, assists, rebounds and steals at one Olympic Games, the fact that Penny has achieved this at her two completed Olympics at Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008 and is a possibility of achieving this again at her final Olympics at Rio in 2016, underlines just how consistent and how strong her all-round game has been for well over a decade. Throughout her career Taylor has also been one of the most accurate shooters in the world from all over the court, making her extremely difficult to guard, especially considering that if Taylor draws extra defensive attention her excellent decision making and passing ability can lead to her providing assists to her team-mate.

A common theme throughout Penny’s decorated career has been the ability to adapt her versatile game to whatever her teams most needed her to provide, which was largely dependent on the strengths and weaknesses of her team-mates. Taylor has the passing skills of a point guard, shooting prowess of a shooting guard and rebounding ability of a forward, which enables her to easily tailor her game to whatever her team most requires from her.

Whilst some critical plays (and hopefully  one more major championship medal) still remain in the incredible basketball career of Penny Taylor her announcement that this is her final year of basketball, coupled with her significant achievement of reaching 50 games at major championships for her beloved Jayco Australian Opals provides a perfect opportunity to reflect on all that Taylor has achieved during her outstanding career and reinforces that we should cherish the opportunity to watch Taylor during these remaining plays. It is likely to be an extremely long time before Australia has another player with the all-ground game, shooting accuracy and the consistency to deliver the quality of major championship performances for the Opals that Penny Taylor has for well over a decade.

By Dean Andrews

Twitter – @DeanAndrews7777

1 http://pickandroll.com.au/opals-legend-penny-taylor-announces-retirement/

2 http://www.smh.com.au/news/basketball/opals-savour-golden-moment-in-history/2006/09/24/1159036416101.html

3 http://www.theaustralian.com.au/archive/news/opals-feel-pennys-pain/story-e6frg7mo-1111117244762

4 http://www.fiba.com/news/aussies-revel-in-their-bronze-worth-its-weight-in-gold

5 http://www.wnba.com/news/penny-taylors-retirement/

 

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