TORONTO — The team with the best players wins, most of the time anyway.
That was certainly the case at GLOBL JAM, the inaugural international U23 tournament hosted by Canada Basketball at the Mattamy Athletic Centre in downtown Toronto.
The evidence was clear on the women’s side as Canada out-lasted France 78-60 in the final of the women’s event Sunday to finish with a perfect 5-0 record in addition to earning the status as the first-ever GLOBL JAM champions.
All week Aaliyah Edwards has been the driving force on head coach Carly Clarke’s side. She celebrated her 20th birthday Saturday by leading Canada to a semifinal win over Team USA (represented by Virginia Commonwealth University) and followed up with 13 points, seven rebounds and four assists and two steals in Canada’s over France.
Her showing in the Finals left her with tournament averages of 15.4 points, 10 rebounds and 2.4 assists on 56.4 per cent shooting as the six-foot-three University of Connecticut junior led Canada in scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage on her way to MVP honours.
“I pride myself on being consistent and that’s what I really want to do this tournament,” Edwards said. “And I had goals for myself individually, but also as a team collectively; bottom line is we wanted to win, so we did that. And we’re very proud of ourselves and our team.”
It was a coming out party of sorts for Edwards, who was the youngest member of the women’s Olympic team in Tokyo last summer but played sparingly. As Canada prepares for the World Cup in Australia this fall and builds towards the Olympics in Paris in 2024 the U23 event has given her a platform to demonstrate to senior national team head coach Victor Lapena and his staff that there is talent knocking at the door, Edwards foremost among them.
“She’s so steady and so consistent [with] here rebounding and defending,” said Clarke, who is an assistant on the senior team. “And to see her, I think, grow in confidence in her ability to score. Early in the tournament, she was scoring out of her rebounding, later in the tournament, she started to take advantage and make use of the isolation opportunities, and score within the offence. For her in all [areas] we could use it, at her position in particular.”
Edwards wasn’t alone. Also impressive this week has been Merissah Russell, the powerful two-way forward who is set to begin her junior year at Louisville, where she has so far struggled to find playing time on a team that went 30-5 and advanced to the Final Four, losing to eventual champion South Carolina. But playing a prominent role for the U23 team has the Ottawa native bursting with confidence.
Russell scored 11 points and connected on 3-of-7 triples against France. Her triple in transition early in the fourth quarter put Canada up by 20 and effectively put the game out of reach after the Canadians led from early on in the first quarter. Russell was an alternate on the Olympic team last summer, played for the senior team in World Cup qualifying this past February and is hoping her experience in GLOBL JAM can help her as she pushes to make the senior team for the World Cup in Sydney beginning in late September.
“Fingers crossed,” she said. “We’re gonna compete and they’re going to send the best team they can there to hopefully win gold in the World Cup and I hope to be part of it.”
Unfortunately for Canada Basketball fans, the adage about the best players usually being the key ingredient on winning teams, it held true on the men’s side of the draw also. The hope was that Canada could make a clean sweep as hosts but that was undone on Saturday night when Team USA — represented by Baylor University — squeezed past Canada with a 93-97 win in the semifinal. The difference in the game was the performance of incoming Baylor freshman guard Keyonte George, who put up 34 points on 12-of-21 shooting in a dominant showing by a player projected to be a high lottery pick in the 2023 NBA draft.
But the importance — or the potential importance — of GLOBL JAM extended beyond the scoreboard. It was a week-long basketball festival that proved a gathering point for national team alumni, helped anchor a hall-of-fame induction ceremony for Canada Basketball and was the impetus for wider community events as well. Perhaps most importantly, players couldn’t help but gush about the opportunity to play in front of their families — in some cases for the first time in two years due to the pandemic — and doing it in Canada with a Canadian jersey on made it that much more special.
The hope is that it can help the likes of Edwards and Russell and some of here U23 teammates do it again for the senior team eventually, and with a medal on the line.