SYDNEY, Australia: Breanna Stewart drilled 22 points as the United States launched their bid Thursday for a fourth straight women's basketball world title with an 87-72 win over Belgium, as France upset hosts Australia to ruin veteran Lauren Jackson's return. The American Olympic champions were 48-39 clear at half-time and never relented, despite missing three players from their 12-strong roster who are still en route to Sydney after the WNBA Finals.

Jewell Loyd and Alyssa Thomas both added 14 points while Julie Vanloo scored 13 to lead Belgium on the opening day of the 10-day tournament in Sydney. The victory was the Americans' 23rd in a row at the World Cup, an incredible streak that began in 2010. "It was about what we expected, we knew we were going to come out hard and do things well, but also make mistakes. It was the first time we were on the court with the team," said Stewart. Coach Cheryl Reeve said she was particularly pleased with their defence.

"We expected us to be a little bit rough in terms of our chemistry, but we had good chemistry on the defensive side, which I thought was really good," she said. Australia, the 2018 beaten finalists and world number three, crashed 70-57 to Olympic bronze medallists France. Their shooting outside the arc let them down, with just five of 23 dropping, as Gabby Williams starred for the French with 23 points and two assists. "When push came to shove I think our defence let us down in the third quarter," said Australian centre Marianna Tolo. "It was tough."

The game marked the return to top-level competition of Jackson, a four-time Olympic medallist and seven-time WNBA all-star who retired in 2016 with a persistent knee injury. Now a mother of two, she launched a comeback in April to make her fifth World Cup and first in 12 years. The 41-year-old spent 10 minutes on court and netted a three-pointer to ensure she became only the third player in women's World Cup history to net 600 competition points, behind Brazilian pair Hortencia Marcari and Janeth Dos Santos Arcain.

Game high

Despite the retirement of stalwarts Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, and the absence of the jailed Brittney Griner, the USA remain hot favourites to land an 11th title. Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum and A'ja Wilson, who were all on the Las Vegas Aces team that sealed the WNBA Finals 3-1 against the Connecticut Sun last weekend, have yet to arrive in Australia and did not feature on Thursday.

Nevertheless, the team quickly found their rhythm and they raced to a 32-22 first-quarter lead. Belgium, who finished fourth in 2018, rallied to take the second quarter 17-16, but they were no match for the United States' solid defence and shooting prowess.

Along with Belgium, the USA are in Group A with China, South Korea, Puerto Rico and Bosnia and Herzegovina, with the top four making the quarter-finals. Puerto Rico clocked their first-ever World Cup win in only their second championship by crushing the Jonquel Jones-led Bosnia and Herzegovina 82-58.

Star veteran Arella Guirantes scored a game-high 26 points, nine rebounds and eight assists-the first time since the 1994 tournament that a player had bagged at least 25 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in a single game. "I'm lost for words right now since we have been grinding so much together," said Guirantes after delivering some upbeat news for her homeland, which is recovering from being pounded by Hurricane Fiona.

China crushed South Korea 107-44, controlling the game from the tip-off to demonstrate their podium ambitions while Asian champions Japan proved a class above Mali in Group B, romping home 89-56 with 16 three-pointers. World number four Canada had a tougher task against Serbia before prevailing 67-60. - AFP