When it comes to Canadian basketball, the women’s senior national team is all you could ask for. Frequent representation from their top players like Kia Nurse and Natalie Achonwa, and consistent tournament finishes, including gold medals at the FIBA Americas, the 2015 Pan Am Games and qualifying for the last three Olympics.
They’ve built the team organically over the past two decades on the backs of veteran players like Miranda Ayim, who is retiring after these Olympics, and team captain Kim Gaucher, who sacrificed summers and time with their families to bring Canadian basketball up to the fourth-ranked program in the world.
For a program that has achieved so much and came so far, only one goal remains – finishing on an Olympic podium for the first time. In Gaucher’s words, it’s “medal or bust” and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will provide Canada with their best chance yet.
During the recently completed FIBA Women’s AmeriCup, which was used as a tune-up for the Canadian squad who hadn’t played together in 16 months due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, head coach Lisa Thomaidis began implementing a new up-tempo style of offence looking to modernize the way the team approached the game.
For the most part, it was a successful move for the Canadians who led the tournament in three-point shooting and the emergence of NCAA standouts Shaina Pellington, Aaliyah Edwards and Laeticia Amihere secured their spot on the Olympic roster, but when teams were able to push Canada off the three-point line, they struggled to produce in a half-court offence without a true second option. With Nurse, Achonwa, Gaucher and Bridget Carleton back in the fold, they’ll have the tools to remedy that problem.
It’s easy to get excited about the Canadian squad’s chances but some tough challenges stand ahead of them, and it starts with their first game against Serbia, who is defending their 2016 Olympic bronze medal from Rio de Janeiro.
Last month Serbia took home the gold medal at the FIBA Women’s EuroBasket led by standout performances from EuroBasket MVP and Serbian flag bearer Sonja Vasic and point guard Yvonne Anderson. They stifled France defensively in the finals with the kind of pressure defence that Canada struggled to deal with at the AmeriCup. Like any Olympics, momentum coming into the games is a factor that you can’t overlook, and Serbia has the most out of any team at the event.
Spain will also prove to be an interesting benchmark game for the Canadians. While Spain took home the silver medal at the 2016 Olympics, they’ve struggled to find their footing as a team throughout the summer, dropping in the quarter-finals to Serbia but will be getting Alba Torrens back to pair with the Chicago Sky’s Astou Ndour and Maite Cazorla.
Beyond the group phase, it doesn’t get any easier. The United States women’s basketball team is on the hunt for their seventh straight gold medal, a streak that dates back to 1992. As expected, the Americans stacked with the best of the best WNBA talent including Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart, Diana Taurasi and current WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson.
Australia may be primed as the upset contender of the event after defeating the Americans 70-67 in a pre-Olympics exhibition game. While the Opals will be without their star player Liz Cambage who withdrew from the event citing mental health concerns over isolation at the Olympics, they’ll be led by Seattle Storm’s Ezi Magbegor, Washington Mystics’ Leilani Mitchell and New York Liberty forward Bec Allen.
The margin for error is slim at any Olympics, but Canada’s biggest challenge outside of the field may just be themselves. Integrating their star players into a new offence after 18 months away from the team will have to be done quickly. Nurse, Carleton and Achonwa have all been studying the new playbook during the WNBA season and have been actively involved in team meetings over Zoom throughout the pandemic, which should make finding their footing a bit easier.
They’ll also need to quickly figure out what they’re getting from Achonwa, who is coming back from a sprained right medial collateral ligament. Achonwa played a key role in their winning effort at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Ostend, averaging 13.3 points per game and 6.3 rebounds a game but Canada struggled to consistently involve their bigs during the AmeriCup – something Thomaidis made a point of saying they have to do better during the Olympics.
The path to the podium is a tough one for the Canadians but they’re now a veteran group of players who have been in these positions before, which counts for a lot. If they’re able to start fast with wins over Serbia and Spain, the podium will be just three games away and they’ll be in full control of their destiny.
Photo courtesy Canada Basketball