Canada’s young core hopes to maximize AmeriCup opportunity ahead of Tokyo

Canada's Aaliyah Edwards goes up for the shot against the Dominican Republic during second half action of FIBA Women's Olympic Pre Qualifying Tournaments Americas 2019, in Edmonton, Alta., on Sunday November 17, 2019. (Jason Franson/CP)

The FIBA AmeriCup in San Juan, Puerto Rico is a long way from the Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, but for the medal-seeking Canadian women’s national team, it’s a perfect place to start what they hope will be a history-making journey.

Due to the pandemic, head coach Lisa Thomaidis hasn’t had her squad together since they won their Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Belgium back in February of 2020, where they punched their ticket to their third straight Olympic tournament.

Now with only six weeks to go until the fourth-ranked Canadians begin their podium quest in Tokyo, every competitive opportunity needs to be maximized.

The AmeriCup is a qualifier for the 2022 FIBA Basketball World Cup and for Canada – who won gold in 2015 and 2017 and silver in 2019 – advancing is largely assumed.

But with the Olympics coming up, the tournament is a perfect place to identify strengths and weaknesses before Tokyo.

“[We’re] definitely looking at getting a bit of a benchmark: where are gaps, where do we need to get better?” Thomaidis said. “We’re not going to be a refined product [in Puerto Rico] after 10 days of practice, but it’ll be a great chance to play against someone different, to test out the system to see where we need to make changes, and then ultimately identifying and selecting our final Olympic roster, so you know it’s great that we get the competition at this time.”

Canada – the top-ranked team in Pool A – begins the round-robin preliminaries against U.S. Virgin Islands.

If all goes according to form, Canada should meet Team USA in the Finals, although it’s a development-level American team of college players, given their national team stars are in the midst of the WNBA season.

Canada too, will have different look than the team they will finally be taking to Tokyo. Not available for work yet are Natalie Achonwa, Kia Nurse and Bridget Carleton who are still with their WNBA teams.

While it’s not ideal to not be missing a quarter of your final roster and perhaps half of your top six, Thomaidis is using the opportunity to test the fit of an emerging core of young talent that could either be added to the mix for Tokyo or form the core of the program going forward.

Among them are three teenagers – Aaliyah Edwards, Laeticia Amihere and Merissah Russell – who play at UCONN, South Carolina and Louisville. Also in Puerto Rico is Shaina Pellington, 22, from the University of Arizona.

They’re not new to the program – all have been a part of youth teams throughout their development at the very least – but seeing them circulate among an already established team as a group will give Thomaidis some food for thought when it comes to her final roster.

The decision could come down to opting for the high-end athleticism and energy of the youngsters over some veteran experience – a tough call in the context of the Olympic tournament, where every game matters and Canada has been waiting five years to make up for a heart-breaking quarter-finals exit in 2016 in Brazil.

“…We do have the vets, we do have the youth and athleticism,” Thomaidis said. “I feel like we talked about this like almost every Olympics; every World Championship where have these vets and we have these really cool young ones that are coming up that are gonna add some flair to what we’re doing so it’s just that matter of being able to meld the two together and see how we can make that work.”

It’s been working well in training. For the most part, the college crew have fit in seamlessly with their older peers, bringing their game and their talent, but also soaking up the wisdom on tap from a team populated by women with long professional careers and multiple Olympic tournaments on their resume.

“I’ve learned a lot,” said Edwards, a six-foot-three wing who can guard four or five positions and can slash to the rim almost at will.

She was first exposed to the senior program before she finished high school, and now has a chance to crack the Olympic roster, but needs to prove – starting in Puerto Rico – she can fulfil a role on a team that has no margin for error as they look to bring a medal home from Tokyo.

“First coming into training camp, obviously, was intimidating,” Edwards said. “You’ve got all these professionals and I was just like a high school kid, but at the same time they really took me under their wing and brought me up with them instead of out-casting me and pushing me to the side.

“So I soaked up a lot of knowledge, gained a lot of IQ just because they’ve been playing overseas, and [Miranda Ayim, Achonwa] and all the women on the leadership team really just helped me and guided me through this process and made me a better player … just being in this environment made me a better player just by being surrounded by such skillful, competitive teammates.”

The young energy is welcome, even if there may be something of a generational divide.

“We definitely try to integrate everybody,” said Ayim, 33, a team captain who is planning to retire following her third Olympics. “Although when they do start talking about college stuff and TikTok and all this stuff, they get in their own little circle.

“But, yeah, it’s pretty awesome. Our practices are really, really fast, and we’re so athletic at every position, people are jumping out of the gym … and because we’ve always hung our hat on defence, I get really excited when we have these hustle plays where it looks like we’re not going to get this rebound, but someone flies in from nowhere, they tip it or they jump out of bounds and pass it back, and we get a breakaway layup off of that.

“That’s what I’m really excited about integrating,” Ayim said. “But I also hope — as a veteran, going out — that we’re able to keep and continue this legacy of core values of grit, loyalty, sacrifice that have taken us from not even [on the radar] to No. 4 in the world and competing for a medal.

“We can’t forget what got us here.”

That doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a problem:

“A lot of people ask me, like, ‘Oh my gosh! What’s it like playing for UConn?’” Edwards said. “[And] obviously, it’s great playing for a great program like that, but before I got to UConn I was playing for my country and repping my country, and it really holds a sacred part of my heart because you’re not only playing for your coaches or your teammates beside you, but you’re playing for your whole country and everybody who’s sacrificed to put you in that position, and also my family as well.

“You’re playing for a bigger picture and that’s really what you take onto yourself and the pressure you put onto yourself when you’re playing for a national team because it’s just bigger than yourself.”

The kids may or may not be in Tokyo — what happens over the next 10 days in Puerto Rico will be a factor in those decisions — but one way or another Canada’s women’s national team will be all right.

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