Canada emerges from lion’s den looking strong

Michael Grange and Eric Smith break down Canada's big win over Mexico, and how they responded to a crowd overwhelmingly rooting against them.

MEXICO CITY — They walked into the coliseum to boos and whistles, if not facing actual lions. The roars were only from the crowd, but they were all for Mexico, Canada’s opponent.

Canada heard them, but they didn’t cower. They rose, turning back the home team 94-73, winning their sixth straight game, all by 20 points or more, handing Mexico their first defeat and keeping a shot at the valuable No. 1 seed in the semi-finals alive.

It was a complete performance by a team under adverse circumstances when they needed it most, and Canada now knows they have that in their bag too, not that they ever doubted themselves.

“You didn’t have to say anything to anyone [before the game],” said Melvin Ejim, one of four Canadians who scored in double figures, chipping in 12 points and eight rebounds off the bench. “Everyone was focused, everyone was ready. We knew what kind of atmosphere it was going to be and we were excited to take on the challenge.”

Andrew Wiggins (17 points) and Andrew Nicholson (15) led the offence and it was a team approach on defence as they held Mexico to 39 per cent shooting in the first half, putting their stamp on a game that was never in doubt after the opening quarter.

It was the best kind of learning experience.

After seven games at the FIBA Americas Tournament what has become apparent is that Canada is the best team here, and it might not be all that close.

But nothing is done until it’s done and as a young Canadian team took the floor at a packed Palacio De Los Deportes with a semi-final berth already locked up in advance of their showdown with undefeated Mexico, the only questions were almost existential: It was obvious what Canada is at the moment — young and wildly talented by FIBA Americas standards — but what could they be?

How would they react under pressure? How would they manage their first experience as a team playing in front of a hostile international crowd?

The only reason for doubt was that in their first game of the tournament, a loss to Argentina, Canada had put in a performance that general manager Steve Nash called “timid” in his comments before Tuesday night’s game.

Mexico is hardly the ’92 Dream Team, but they are the defending FIBA Americas champions, and they had yet to drop a game on their home court in 2015, bolstered by a crowd that has set attendance records for FIBA Americas events.

“It’s a great opportunity for our young guys to play in a true hostile international environment,” Nash said. “They’re going to grow from that regardless from the result. They’ll learn a lot about themselves tonight. I think it’s a fantastic opportunity.”

He added that for all their talent, what Canada lacks are moments when they are under stress, collectively, moments that champions or aspiring champions can draw on when needed.

“We’re very inexperienced,” said Nash of his team, whose average age is just 23.8. “We have very few collective experiences together. I think we’ve been together three-and-a-half weeks as a group today. We suffer in some ways in roles and relationships and team-building and common experiences.”

Now they have at least this in common: When the volume is turned up, they’ll show up.

Specifically, Wiggins will deliver. The reigning NBA rookie of the year said in the build-up that crazy crowds got him going, and then he showed it. He opened the game with a triple, scored in transition and added another triple. Kelly Olynyk and Anthony Bennett also chipped in from deep. Even a pair of early turnovers by Nik Stauskas didn’t matter too much early as Canada jumped out to a 26-17 first-quarter lead, with Wiggins scoring 10 points on 4-for-4 shooting.

“I think big crowds bring out the big players,” said Wiggins.

Coming into the game about the only thing Canada hadn’t done has been to catch fire from three early on. Check that off the list. Following Wiggins’ cue Canada was 8-of-12 from beyond the arc with four minutes left in the second quarter as they pushed out to a 52-30 halftime lead.

Perhaps the best part was that once again the bench helped Canada build that lead and Triano was able to get 10 players into the game in the first half, all of them scoring, all of them getting a taste of what it’s like to play against the host nation.

But their offensive display wasn’t at the expense of their defence.

Again Wiggins led the charge, getting out so high and so quickly to a perimeter shooter that an air ball followed, grabbing a steal and getting fouled in transition on the next play and then feeling Melvin Ejim for a dunk on another fastbreak after a forced turnover.

Still, the Mexican crowd wouldn’t be silenced.

Every score was cheered wildly. The few times they scored twice in a row the place went mad, but Canada played through in the third quarter and it was Stauskas blunting any momentum with a pair of threes, though Wiggins added another.

Canada’s domination was so complete that it had FIBA conspiracy types wondering if they might have some motivation to allow Canada to run away with it to avoid them in the semi-finals. That would require Canada to finish as the first seed, which would require them to win over Dominican Republic on Wednesday and Mexico to beat Argentina by 35 points or less, with the point differential in the ensuing three-way tie between Canada, Argentina and Mexico being the difference. Adding to the intrigue was that Mexico played their starters far less than they have all tournament, possibly resting them to make a run against Argentina.

Stranger things have happened, but still.

“It’s a simple formula,” said Nicholson, a physics major. “Keep winning.”

In any scenario their semi-final game will be a test for a young team with an Olympic berth hanging in the balance.

“It’s going to be a new experience for our guys, an invaluable experience for them,” said Nash. “And I’m confident they can pull through but it’s definitely going to be an immensely difficult game for us.”

Based on their performance in the lion’s den Tuesday night, you have to like Canada’s chances.

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