MacKinnon: Win gives surging Canadian women’s basketball team a year to prep for Olympics

 

 
 
 
 
Miah-Marie Langlois (4), left, and Ineidis Casanova (5). Canada beats Cuba 82-66 for the gold at the FIBA Americas Women’s basketball tournament in Edmonton. August 16, 2015.
 
 

Miah-Marie Langlois (4), left, and Ineidis Casanova (5). Canada beats Cuba 82-66 for the gold at the FIBA Americas Women’s basketball tournament in Edmonton. August 16, 2015.

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EDMONTON - Canada’s women’s basketball team is surging and the momentum has propelled it not just down the road to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the 2016 Summer Olympics, but into the national consciousness.

Canada capped an undefeated summer on home court Sunday by defeating Cuba 82-66 to win the FIBA Americas Women’s Championship and clinch that all-important Olympic berth one year before the Games.

As a sellout crowd of 2,600 at the Saville Community Sports Centre chanted: “Rio! Rio! Rio!” with the seconds ticking off, the players struggled to contain their emotions as they fulfilled their three-year mission.

“I started crying,” said team captain Kim Gaucher, who reconsidered her plan to retire following Canada’s eighth-place finish at the London Games to take one more shot at an Olympic medal. “I was like, ‘Oh, keep it together, there are still 90 seconds left.’

“But, it’s so neat. What an amazing experience. Edmonton was absolutely outstanding, the fan support was unreal. It was like a dream come true.”

The victory on Sunday ran Canada’s record to a spotless 6-0 at the Olympic qualifying tournament and to 11-0 on home court when you factor in their 5-0 won-lost mark en route to a gold medal at the Pan American Games in Toronto in July.

Team Canada truly is living a perfect storm, many of the components of a winning team meshing seamlessly in the run-up to the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Their charismatic star, guard Kia Nurse, who scored 20 points to lead Canada, is just 19. She is still polishing her game at the University of Connecticut, and she’s only going to improve.

The same is true for power forward Natalie Achonwa, 22, who was the youngest player for Canada at the 2012 Olympics, and now a WNBA star with the Indiana Fever.

Others like Nirra Fields (21), Miah-Marie Langlois (22) and Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe (23) are just starting their senior international careers, really.

“For us, the thing is just growth,” said Fields, of Lachine Que. “We always try to come out and just try to improve every game.

“It has been like that since Pan Ams and I think we’re just going to continue that. As much as we play, we’re just going to get better and better as a team.”

Edmonton’s Plouffe twins, Katherine and Michelle, are 22. Michelle, who competed for Canada at London, gutted out this tournament while still rehabbing a nasty ankle injury.

The players all have bought into head coach Lisa Thomaidis’ offensive system in which everybody plays, everybody passes, everybody runs and everybody scores.

She stressed this week she has no first and second line, but 12 players who all make significant contributions. The team’s play reinforced that, game after lopsided game.

The cerebral Thomaidis, an unflappable presence on the sidelines during games, has put her own stamp on a program since she was promoted from longtime assistant to head coach following the 2012 Olympics.

Since then, she has led Canada to a silver medal at the 2013 FIBA Americas tournament, an impressive fifth place at the 2014 World Cup and back-to-back gold medals this summer.

Where would Thomaidis situate the team she leads among all those she has been involved with, as a coach or player, particularly in terms of overall engagement?

“This is the best team I’ve ever been a part of, hands down,” said Thomaidis, a former collegiate, pro and international player, longtime university head coach, and an assistant with Team Canada for more than a decade before being named to the head job. “The talent, the character, the depth, the experience, the buy-in, the intelligence — everything ranks at the top of the list.”

With youth factored into that matrix, this team, as it grows and evolves, could be on a trajectory that extends well past Rio de Janeiro to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and beyond.

The focus now, though, is 2016, for which Canada now has nearly an entire year to prepare, unlike 2012, when Canada was the final team to qualify for the Games, securing its Olympic berth just two weeks before the Games.

“I think we certainly fired some shots out there that Canada is coming,” Thomaidis said.

jmackinnon@edmontonjournal.com

Twitter.com/rjmackinnon

Check out my blog at edmontonjournal.com/Sweatsox

 
 
 
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Miah-Marie Langlois (4), left, and Ineidis Casanova (5). Canada beats Cuba 82-66 for the gold at the FIBA Americas Women’s basketball tournament in Edmonton. August 16, 2015.
 

Miah-Marie Langlois (4), left, and Ineidis Casanova (5). Canada beats Cuba 82-66 for the gold at the FIBA Americas Women’s basketball tournament in Edmonton. August 16, 2015.

 
Miah-Marie Langlois (4), left, and Ineidis Casanova (5). Canada beats Cuba 82-66 for the gold at the FIBA Americas Women’s basketball tournament in Edmonton. August 16, 2015.
Canada celebrates a win over Cuba 82-66 for the gold at the FIBA Americas Women’s basketball tournament in Edmonton. August 16, 2015.
Miranda Ayim (9), left, and Tamara Tatham (13) celebrate as Canada beats Cuba 82-66 for the gold at the FIBA Americas Women’s basketball tournament in Edmonton. August 16, 2015.
Natalie Achonwa (11) tries to grab the ball as Canada beats Cuba 82-66 for the gold at the FIBA Americas Women’s basketball tournament in Edmonton. August 16, 2015.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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