With new outlook, Canada ready to ‘focus on the process’ at FIBA Women’s World Cup

Natalie Achonwa dribbles a ball during Canada's senior women's national team practice in Toronto, Friday, July 8, 2022. (Cole Burston/CP)

The Canadian Women’s basketball team has been at or near the top of its game for nearly a decade now, with three consecutive Olympic appearances, the fourth spot in the world ranking and fifth-place finish at the 2014 World Cup to show for it.

But transitions are inevitable; change is part of growth.

So as the current edition of the women’s team tips off at the FIBA Women’s World Cup in Australia with a game against No. 10 Serbia Wednesday night, it feels like it’s at the start of a journey, rather than picking up where the team left off which — for the record — was a frustrating ninth-place finish and a failure to advance out of the group stage.

“It feels like something I’ve never been a part of,” said Natalie Achonwa, who, at age 29, is suddenly one of the team’s elders and the only holdover from the 2012 Olympic team. “And so I’m gonna put that as a positive, that you can’t continue to do the same thing and expect a different result.

“So yes, we had a certain group that got us [to this level], and then yes, we had a couple of groups that maintained that for us, but you need something different for a different outcome.

“And I think we are very different. When you add youth in there, when you add some athleticism, when you add some age and some veteran-ship, I think it’s a good balance.”

The biggest changes to the roster have been marked by the post-Olympic retirements of veterans Miranda Ayim and Kim Gaucher, and the introduction of five new faces that weren’t on the national team roster at the Olympics in Tokyo last summer.

But even more significant was the transition from head coach Lisa Thomaidis, who led Canada to its all-time peak No. 4 ranking over her nine years on the bench before stepping down after Tokyo.

An international search led Canada Basketball to highly regarded Spanish youth head coach Victor Lapeña, who will make his World Cup debut at the senior level.

He’s expanded on Thomaidis’ move to have Canada play at a faster tempo to take advantage of its increasingly athletic roster while reshaping some of the team’s core defensive principles with a switch-heavy scheme that will rely heavily on the talents of 21-year-old Laeticia Amihere — the hyper-mobile, 6’4 forward who can guard all five positions on the floor.

But to hear the players tell it, it’s the less-tangible contributions of Lapeña and his staff that have given the national team a fresh outlook.

“He’s brought an energy to us that I’m not sure we’ve seen before. Like, when I tell you, this man has energy, there’s a different level of energy that Victor has every single day, like never tires type of energy,” said Kia Nurse, who will playing in her first competition of any kind since tearing the ACL in her right knee during the WNBA playoffs nearly a year ago. “And what I love is that he loves to teach the game. This is my first experience working with him, here at the World Cup, and I can tell that, just from the way that he talks with us, from the way that he takes his time to try to get to know all of us off the court as well, and just put us in situations and positions where we can be successful as players.”

But what is success?

As the women’s team has climbed the international rankings, expectations followed. The explicit goal in Tokyo last summer was a podium appearance and Canada’s first Olympic medal in basketball since a silver for the men in the first Olympic tournament in 1936.

But Canada stumbled out of the gate against Serbia and again against Spain in the final game of pool play, failing to advance in large part because they shot the ball poorly as a team, converting just 5-of-24 from three against Serbia and 37 per cent overall against Spain in a pair of close losses.

The goals remain high, but with a new coaching staff and so many new faces, the ‘medal or bust’ pressure has been eased off just a wee bit, it seems.

“You don’t know how far I’ve drop kicked  the word ‘expectations’ — and not necessarily just from Japan,” says Achonwa.  “Years ago, one of my teammates told me ‘when you hold on something so tightly, sometimes you suffocate it’, and I think we were so focused on wanting to medal and so focused on standing on the podium at the Olympics that we played tight, and that we felt tight.

“And so this time around, I’ve been focusing on the process. Process is my word this time, and investing in a process, focusing on the process, enjoying the process has really been the focus.”

The test of their resolve will come early. Once again Canada will open pool play against Serbia in a repeat of their Olympic opener a year ago.

Canada’s pool is too deep to get geared up for one opponent, given games against France (No. 6 in the world), Japan (Olympic silver medalists; ranked eighth in the world), and Australia (No. 3) come in rapid order, with Mali (No. 37) the only team in Group B against which Canada would be a clear favourite going in.

But they can help their cause with a good result against Serbia and have all the motivation they need after they couldn’t close them out last summer.

“It’s in the rearview, yes, but I was actually thinking about that today,” Canadian forward Bridget Carleton said during a conference call on Monday. “They just got to the hotel; I saw Serbia across their chest … it’d be really nice … I’m excited to play them again, I’ll just leave it at that. 

“They’re a great team but I’m definitely excited to play them, especially in the first game. “

There may be new players, a new coach, and a new outlook, but for the Canadian women’s team the challenge remains the same: to be among the best in the world, they must beat the best, and they will get plenty of chances over the coming week in Australia.

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