Real work begins now for Canada’s women’s basketball team

Canada's Natalie Achonwa (11) drives to the hoop. (Jason Franson/CP)

As Natalie Achonwa recalled, fellow veteran teammate Miranda Ayim assembled the rest of Team Canada and delivered a simple message: “We need to win these first three minutes.”

This was just before the second half of Canada’s Saturday contest vs. Sweden at the FIBA Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament. Canada had played a sloppy first half, committing 12 turnovers and holding onto just a six-point lead against a far inferior opponent.

The memo from Ayim was clear: Win the first three minutes and not only are the Canadians going to win this particular game, they’ll be that much closer to the Olympics in Tokyo later this summer.

The message was received.

Canada didn’t only go on to win the first three minutes of the second half versus Sweden, it went ahead and dominated the whole 20 as the FIBA No. 4-ranked Canadians held the No. 23 Swedes to just 6-for-23 shooting for the remainder of the game, while turning the ball over three more times as Canada ran away with an 80-50 victory to officially qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

“I just said to the team, to qualify with a 30-point victory is pretty special and it really speaks to how far this team has come,” Canadian coach Lisa Thomaidis told reporters after the game.

And what a journey it’s been.

This is the third straight Olympics that Canada has qualified for, with this time being, perhaps, the most emphatic path to the Games.

“We’ve experienced the whole gamut of qualification,” said Thomaidis. “Last-minute, grind-it-out in 2012, the last possible berth we eked out. And then onto 2016 where we took care of business in Canada. And now, for the first time in our tenure, doing it on foreign soil.”

Having gone through the full range within qualification before, however, things were a little different this time for Canada. With the team ranked a program-best No. 4 in the world now, the goalposts have moved, and while Olympic qualification is a nice first step, the real work begins now.

In the last two Olympics, Canada has finished eighth (2012) and seventh (2016), respectively. But this summer the program has the much loftier goal of a podium finish.

There’s no time for this team to sit on its laurels as Olympic preparation will begin as early as Sunday with the team’s remaining Olympic qualifying game against Tokyo 2020 host Japan.

Obviously, both teams have already locked up berths for the Tokyo Games so it seems like a nothing affair at first, but for a team like Canada with podium dreams on its mind, getting an early look at an Olympic opponent can only help.

“I think it’s a start to Tokyo now,” said Natalie Achonwa, who scored a game-high 16 points against Sweden Saturday. “It’s an opportunity that we don’t get all the time to play a different style of basketball. So I think our mentality was we came in wanting to win every game in this tournament, and we’ll keep that mentality going forward.”

Achonwa, along with Ayim and Kim Gaucher, has been a stalwart for all three of Canada’s Olympic berths and though she understands the task ahead and is an Olympic veteran at this point, she isn’t taking this opportunity for granted.

“Listening to [Thomaidis] talk about it being my, Kim and Miranda’s third Olympics kind of made me emotional,” said Achonwa. “Knowing that the injuries, the fight, not only me, but what our entire team has been through to get to this point, I don’t think we take it lightly.

“It’s an honour to be able to represent Canada every time we put a jersey on, but to be able to do it at the Olympic Games and to qualify for another Olympic Games we definitely do not take it lightly.”

Unlike the men’s program, which, for many reasons, always seems to have difficulty getting its top guns to play, Canada’s women have always shown up to represent the national team, even dating back to when the program wasn’t a virtual shoe-in to reach the Olympics every time.

This is a legacy, in regards to Canadian basketball, that’s unique to the women’s team and so even with the program soaring higher than ever before, Achonwa and the rest of this team do not forget about the sacrifices made before.

“That’s why we come every summer. That’s why we commit to Canada Basketball. Because we know it’s bigger than the individual,” said Achonwa. “We know it’s bigger than just me, it’s bigger than just any player who’s had the chance to put on the jersey right now. It’s the years we didn’t qualify for the Olympics… That’s why it’s so special to put on a Canada jersey. We know it’s beyond the individual. It’s way bigger than just us.”

Canada’s women’s team is Olympic-bound once again because of this. It’s something Canada’s men’s team could probably look to as an example, too.

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