Strong start by Canada at FIBA Worlds will only get better if Carleton heats up

Canada's Bridget Carleton, seen here in a file photo in a game against South Korea at the Olympics in 2021, is still searching for a consistent shooting rhythm with the national team. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

It’s still early, but the Victor Lapena-era is off to a rousing beginning.

The Spanish international and recently appointed head coach of the Canadian women’s team has guided them to an impressive 2-0 start at the FIBA Basketball Women’s World Cup in Australia, counting momentum-building wins over No. 10 Serbia and No. 6 France, as they head into a critical match-up with Japan — the Olympic silver medallists a year ago — on Sunday.

Already in a strong position, one more win and a loss by 0-2 Mali should secure Canada a spot in the medal round as they try to finish among the top four teams of the six in Pool B. With a +21-point differential, Canada has an inside track not only to be in the top four, but to finish in the top three of the group and avoid a quarter-final match-up with the No. 1-ranked U.S. as the women’s hoops powerhouse steamrolls through the other side of the draw in Group A.

If they can pull that off Canada’s path to a medal will be as wide open as it’s ever been.

It’s all speculative and fun to think about as the fourth-ranked Canadians find their feet under Lapena and lead assistant Noelle Quinn, who were brought in to replace the out-going Lisa Thomaidis, but it’s clear early on the new staff is connecting well with a roster mixed liberally with fresh and familiar faces.

Among the players who have seen their roles expand under Lapena is veteran centre Kayla Alexander, who averaged just three minutes a game at the Olympics last summer where Canada finished a disappointing ninth, but has started both games in Australia. Alexander is averaging 31 minutes through two games in Australia and has responded by putting up 11 points and 10.5 rebounds a game.

With veteran guard Kia Nurse restricted to 20 minutes per contest following surgery for a torn ACL, more minutes have been distributed to Nirra Fields and Shay Colley in the back-court rotation, and each have stepped up. Fields in particular has been excellent, and her ability to break down defences was on full display against France on Friday morning as she carried Canada with a game-high 17 points on 16 shots, many of them self-created against a stingy French defence.

As a group, Canada has continued with the high defensive standards they’ve been known for over the past decade, as they held Serbia and France to 37.6 per cent and 30.6 per cent shooting, respectively.

There are still some areas for concern, however. One being Canada’s offence, which hasn’t flowed the way it will likely need to if Lapena’s club is going to keep their momentum and potentially play for a medal for the first time since winning bronze in 1986.

With Nurse limited and in the wake of retirements by veterans Miranda Ayim, Kim Boucher and Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe, one candidate to help fill the void is Bridget Carleton. The four-year WNBA veteran graduated from Iowa State as the second-leading scorer in school history, but hasn’t quite been able to bring her much-needed shooting and shot-creation to the national team stage on a consistent basis.

There have been sightings: She went off for 28 points on 11-of-12 shooting against Bosnia and Herzegovina in World Cup qualifying in February, as an example, but so far in Sydney, Carleton is just 4-of-20 from the floor and 2-of-10 from three.

Now appearing in her third major global competition for Canada, the 25-year-old is hopeful the best is yet to come.

“I always know what I’m capable of. I pride myself as an athlete, as a basketball player, taking pride in doing the right things on the court. At Iowa State, I knew my role: I was expected to take a lot of shots, make a lot of plays, and rebound the ball — I broke the record for field-goal attempts at that school for a reason,” Carleton joked in an interview prior to the tournament. “Then going to the WNBA, where I’m a role player and expected to be efficient, take the right shots, make good decisions, and don’t shoot too much …

“My involvement with the national team started that way: the last world championships I didn’t see the court very much at all. [But] here we are four years later, where I’m expected to be a go-to player …

“Victor wants me to bring some of that flair back, to take some risks. To take some challenging shots sometimes, not just take the wide-open ones but be creative and put myself out there a little bit more on the court. I’m getting more comfortable doing that at this level. It’s definitely getting there.”

Her teammates know she has it in her.

“As you come on new teams, you start in one role and you evolve. And the more time you spend on a team, the more your role kind of expands,” says Natalie Achonwa, who plays with Carleton on the Minnesota Lynx in the WNBA. “And so when you’re coming from a [college] team to a WNBA team to the national team, those roles continue to evolve.

“I think now, Bridget is finding her footing here in the national team program, and that’s as a scorer as a leader and someone that’s going to take on a bigger role for us this tournament and going forward.

“So I think we saw a great glimpse of it in February and I can’t wait to see how it continues to evolve here in this tournament, because spending so much time with Bridget, both in the WNBA and here at the national team, I know that she has it in her and she has those capabilities so there’s nothing left to but to do it right?”

The good news is Canada has already positioned themselves well for an extended stay in Australia; Carleton is going to get her chances.

With the continued team-wide defensive energy and contributions from the likes of Fields and Alexander, if Carlton’s scoring touch starts to heat up Down Under, Lapena’s team can start thinking about ending their trip with a medal ceremony for the first time in nearly 40 years. 

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