TORONTO – In the eight years since Lisa Thomaidis took the reins from the great Allison McNeill as head coach of the Canadian women’s national basketball team, the program has seen unprecedented success and reached heights never even dreamed of before.
Four FIBA AmeriCup medals – including two golds – two World Cup appearances, two Olympic appearances – if you include the forthcoming Tokyo Games – and a best-ever No. 4 ranking in the world.
This is a program that has built itself into the Olympic podium contender from the ground up and deserves all the praise that has come its way.
And, to this point, when the team falters, it deserves the benefit of the doubt, too.
For the first time in its last six FIBA AmeriCups/FIBA Americas Championships, Canada failed to medal as it fell to Brazil 87-82 in a double-overtime, bronze-medal game on Saturday evening.
A poor ending to a strong tournament, Canada dropped its last two games in frustratingly similar fashion as the team didn’t shoot well from the three-point line in either contest and shot itself in the foot from the free-throw line, going 19-of-41 from the charity stripe in that span.
Despite not getting the result it wanted, all has not been lost for Canada. The team still qualified for the 2022 World Cup and, of course, has its sights set on the big goal later in the summer.
So, instead of focusing on the obvious negative of the No. 4 ranked program disappointing at a regional tournament, it’s more productive, instead, to look at the positives and what Canada can learn from these losses.
For example, Canada was down 15 heading into the fourth quarter, but managed to stage a huge comeback to tie the game and send it into extra time and, eventually, a second overtime before the team ran out of gas and it was doomed by its woes at the free-throw line.
“These close games are really a gift for us to be in, to be honest,” said Thomaidis after Saturday’s game. “We’re certainly disappointed. We didn’t come out on the winning end, but it shows a lot about our team. They fought hard, hard, hard. They showed a lot of passion, a lot of grit today. We were down 15 going into the fourth and fought all the way back to send it to overtime and we had a couple of chances to win it.
“Our free-throw shooting is continuing to bite us in the butt here, but from a bigger perspective I think it shows we have a ton of passion, a ton of heart, a ton of grit. I’m really proud of them. They played hard. We’re only two weeks in, two and a half weeks, into training camp and then coming to a competition like this, we’re really early on in our preparation and this is going to really identify some gaps and really help us get better because of this.”
The holes Canada needs to shore up right now seem pretty obvious. All the time away from each other has weakened the team’s communication, as Canada’s trademark stalwart defence proved leaky at times during the tournament. In particular, even if Canada managed to get a stop, the team had difficulty closing out defensive possessions as it gave up too many offensive rebounds.
Part of this, of course, is because of a new-look offence Thomaidis and her staff unveiled during the tournament. A more modern attack predicated on pace and space, there were times where Canadian players were looking to leak out in transition before a rebound was properly secured.
Additionally, the shooting woes Canada experienced in its last two games are likely because of an intended increase in attempts from three. The process to get these looks was good, but the execution just wasn’t there.
These are all things that Canada can and likely has to fix before it arrives in Tokyo, but right now there’s no reason to think this team can’t do so.
And it’s not like the only thing discovered by Team Canada at the AmeriCup was just gaps, either.
There was certainly optimism to be found in the brilliant performance of 19-year-old Laeticia Amihere.
With 27 seconds left to play in the fourth quarter, Amihere banked in a triple to tie the game and, ultimately, send it into overtime. These were just three of the 15 points the teenaged phenom scored in the fourth quarter and two overtimes. She finished the game with a game-high 22 points and 11 rebounds and, despite her age, looked completely unfazed by the moment.
“Like a number of these players, she’s just tough and competes and, again, she hit the three-point shot that tied the game to send it into overtime. She’s fearless,” said Thomaidis. “And she’s so young and certainly doesn’t play like she’s a young one. Certainly happy with how she did in this tournament.”
Amihere finished as one of the tournament’s top scorers, averaging 14.3 points per game, and, more importantly for Canada, looked like she belonged out there.
She highlights a group of young Canadian players who stood out during the AmeriCup and made strong cases to be included on Canada’s roster, including three-point gunner Aislinn Konig, do-everything forward Aaliyah Edwards and explosively athletic point guard Shaina Pellington.
“Honestly, it’s really fun playing with them and watching them flourish in this system,” said Canadian guard Jamie Scott of her younger teammates. “They’re super athletic and I’m just blessed to be out there on the court with them and watching it firsthand.”
Canada’s 2021 AmeriCup didn’t end the way it wanted to, but this was just the first step on the team’s path toward its primary objective. Lessons learned – whether they be positive or negative – are always valuable.