16.09.2008 – Graham Croker

Sarah Stewart shot several crucial baskets as the Australian women’s wheelchair basketball team defeated Japan 53-47 in last night’s play-off for third and fourth at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games.

The Sydney University Sports Scholarship holder can now add a bronze medal to the silver she won at the 2004 Athens Paralympics.

Having gone to Beijing with gold medal prospects, the Gliders got off to a shaky start with a 61-42 loss to the US in their opening match and a 64-56 loss to Germany.

They relied on other results to reach semi-finals where they suffered another demoralising loss to the US, leaving them in a play-off for bronze.

Captain Liesl Tesch led from the front in the play-off, top-scoring with 16 points. Australia’s strike players – Tesch, Cobi Crispin, Kylie Gauci and Shelley Chaplin – were again called on to post a winning score against the Japanese, who relied largely on the efforts of forwards Ikumi Takubo and the top-rated Mari Animoto.

Australia led by seven points at the first break and went to half-time with a 31-23 advantage.

Australia had more chances to put the game away in the third term, but Crispin and Stewart started getting into foul trouble, and the Gliders became tentative.

When Tomoe Soeda sprang the Australian trap to score a big three-pointer and another two-pointer, Japan was back within seven points – 43-36 – at the last change.

Animoto got the opening basket of the final quarter, reducing the lead to just five, and it was game on. The Gliders began to force the ball and Japan had all the momentum, but scoring dried up from both sides.

When the drought broke, it was Megumi Mashiko who scored, and Australia kept turning the ball over.

It took a basket from Stewart to steady the nerves, before Gauci drilled a three-pointer with two minutes left to give the Gliders a stranglehold on the game.

Stewart can now go back to teaching philosophy and maths while contemplating whether to pursue a gold medal at the 2012 London Paralympics to complete the set.