Hunter connection wins Lauren Jackson's praise

AN emotional Lauren Jackson has revealed how much it means to have Novocastrian veterans Suzy Batkovic and Jenni Screen with her for a third successive Olympics.

The Opals opened their London campaign with a 74-58 win against Great Britain on Saturday night, in which Jackson, Batkovic and Screen starred.

The three have been teammates in the national basketball team for a decade and won silver medals in Athens and Beijing.

Yet roughly a year ago Batkovic and Screen were pondering retirement, the former after the death of her father and the latter because of long-term injury.

Instead they opted to soldier on, and on the strength of their displays against the host nation they remain key figures for Australia in their quest for gold.

In a squad containing six Olympic rookies, Jackson said the experience and friendship Batkovic and Screen provided would be invaluable.

With a wavering voice, the Opals skipper and Australian flag bearer at the opening ceremony told the Newcastle Herald the presence of the Newcastle duo meant ‘‘a huge amount’’ to her.

‘‘Suzy is obviously one of my closest friends and Jenni Screen, look, I’ve played with her for many, many years,’’ Jackson said.

‘‘I just can’t tell you enough things about her work ethic and as a teammate.

‘‘She actually might be one of the best teammates I’ve ever had in terms of just constantly looking after other people and being very supportive.

‘‘I’m just glad she’s back. She’s a veteran, she puts her body on the line every game, and I’m just proud to be her teammate.’’

Jackson admitted to feeling drained after the elation of being chosen as Australia’s flag bearer, marching at the opening ceremony then having to deal with a 10.15pm start for the Opals’ opening game.

‘‘I’m not a cryer, I’m a tough girl, but like the smallest things were making me cry,’’ she said.

Opals coach Carrie Graf said she knew Jackson would be below her best in the circumstances, but the champion still produced a game-high 18 points in 20.53 minutes of court time.

Australia’s next top scorer was Batkovic, who contributed 10 points and six defensive rebounds in 29.10 minutes.

Screen started the match and was her usual energetic self, playing 19.42 minutes and contributing four points with six rebounds.

Batkovic said she felt Australia dominated Great Britain but would have to improve against their round-two opponents, France, who they play tomorrow at 11.30pm AEST.

‘‘The first game is not always the prettiest, in my experience, but a win’s a win and we’ll take it,’’ she said.

Batkovic said it felt ‘‘surreal’’ to be competing at her third Olympics, given that she came so close to giving the game away after her father’s death.

‘‘Obviously I went through a tough time with some personal things in my life and I was probably at a point where I didn’t know what to do,’’ she said.

‘‘But the decision I made, I’m happy with that. I’m at my third Olympics and I’m pretty happy about that.’’

Batkovic was delighted to have been able to march at the opening ceremony, having missed that opportunity in Athens and Beijing, because the Opals had early starts the next day.

‘‘This is my third Olympics and I’ve never been to an opening ceremony, only the closing,’’ she said. ‘‘So it was something pretty special and pretty incredible.’’

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