Canada does the unimaginable at Pan Am Games

Even when neither team is sporting their best, Team USA men's basketball is never an easy battle, and for Canada to have downed them to guarantee at least a silver medal at the Pan Am Games marks it as its biggest victory so far in program history.

We aren’t used to this, I think we can all agree:

Heading into international basketball competitions expecting to win them, maybe even being favoured? It’s a new experience.

As for beating the United States? In basketball? Yes, this is our lifetime, but feel free to check just to make sure.

What you’ll find is one of the most compelling, entertaining, and maybe even the most significant games in Canadian basketball history. The men’s program has been turning the corner ever so slowly for years now. The light at the end of the tunnel has always looked bright, but sometimes it didn’t seem to be getting all that much closer.

Now it’s right there. The future is here. This is the moment the Canadian basketball story – a decade in the making — came into the light.

Canada won their Pan Am Games semifinal against the United States 111-108 in an overtime thriller that was better than any string of words will do justice; an absolute barnburner in front of a lucky crowd of 3,500 or so at Mattamy Athletic Centre who will always remember being there.

They can say they were there when Jamal Murray laid the foundation for his legend – what else to say when an 18-year-old scores all 22 of his points in the fourth quarter and overtime, including a game-tying triple with 36 seconds left and a stretch of eight points in a minute that turned a one-point deficit into a 111-106 lead with 55 seconds left in play?

“I’ve been in those situations before,” said Murray, who will enroll at the University of Kentucky this fall and will almost certainly be an NBA lottery pick this time next year. “I just go out there and play on a big stage — I’m just playing basketball, really.”

But no one from Canada has ever played it like this, at his age.

“He’s … got such balls and he’s not afraid of the moment,” national team general manager Steve Nash said of Murray, who was shooting 55 percent from the floor through his first three games and was 8-of-18 last night with six assists and four rebounds in 28 minutes. “He embraces the moment and that’s why he’s very, very special.”

Those who were in the building can say they were there when Andrew Nicholson, who lets his patriotism speak with actions far louder than his words, went off for 31 points when his country needed him most.

They can say they were there when Anthony Bennett was reborn playing in his country’s colours after two disappointing NBA seasons, recording 18 points and 14 rebounds, including the first five points of overtime to get Canada rolling.

They can say they were there when Canada won a big-stakes game that was in and out of their grasp a dozen times down the stretch.

They were there when Canada stood up.

“They came out with the right frame of mind, they weren’t awed by the moment and they played hard,” said Nash, who never beat the US as a senior team player in his career. “We made plenty of mistakes but we also made tremendously great plays and had a lot of guts at the end to stick with it. There was a stretch there where they came at us pretty good and we came right back.

“I’m very, very proud of our guys.”

Sure, it wasn’t best-on-best, but Canada can’t be choosy about how and where they start their winning traditions. Canada – players and fans alike — doubtlessly gained the belief that some day, one day, a group of Canadian men will beat their U.S. counterparts at a global basketball competition and it could be sooner than anyone thinks.

They can say they were there when Canada guaranteed its first-ever Pan Am Games basketball medal – a silver — and earned a chance to play for gold against Brazil on Saturday.

Canada is supposed to be building towards these moments. This is what our emerging Golden Age is all about.

Still, even as Canada was more than holding its own against Team USA – they led after the first quarter and at the half in a game that was close from the tip — there was a little bit of tentativeness in the crowd. Some nervousness. We’re us and they’re them and this is basketball.

Trailing 80-74 going into the fourth quarter, it looked like Canada’s quest for a chance to match the gold medal our women won against the U.S. on Monday night was going to fall short.

Until Murray, who just finished high school, unleashed his inner Kia Nurse and went off for a nine-point flurry to start the fourth, pulling Canada back into the lead and setting up a sprint finish.

It’s a bit of challenge to put the win perfectly in context.

Meetings at the senior men’s level between the country that gave the sport its inventor and the nation that has come to define what Mr. Naismith put on paper have been rare and have never gone Canada’s way.

Among the collective wisdom, no one could recall Canada winning against the U.S. in any Olympic or World Championship competition. There was nothing in the Pan Am Games records. When Leo Rautins was head coach of the national team he did lead Canada to a win over the U.S. at the 2005 Tournament of the Americas, but it was a game between struggling federations with little at stake.

There was Canada’s gold medal win over the USA at the 1983 University Games in Edmonton that deserves its rightful place in Canadian lore, and there have been some age group successes, but not much else at the senior level.

The U.S. brought a development-oriented team featuring seven college players but it was well sprinkled with 1311 games of NBA experience divided among five other players. Their average age was 24.5.

Canada was the younger team at just 24 years old and featured just 203 games of NBA experience split between Bennett and Nicholson – who have been on the fringes with their own clubs — with three belonging to Sim Bhullar in a cameo at the end of the most recent NBA season with the Sacramento Kings.

No wonder it felt weird when U.S. broadcaster and international basketball expert Fran Fraschilla picked Canada to win.

But this is a new generation of Canadian players. Nicholson and Bennett were the best players on the floor. Murray is a superstar in the making, and the depth that head coach Jay Triano has relied on comes from a group of players with college or European professional careers every bit as accomplished anyone the U.S. had. On the women’s side, 19-year-old Nurse figured a gold-medal game against the U.S. was a perfect time to go off for 33 points and make herself a hero. Murray just followed suit.

As fans we may look at a USA Basketball jersey and get nervous, but the players don’t.

“Our kids have been going down into the U.S. to play since they were young teens and some even before that and they’re usually pretty successful when they go down there,” said Canada basketball executive vice-president and men’s team assistant general manager Rowan Barrett. “So they actually have an expectation of beating the Americans.”

We’ve done it twice in a week here at the Pan Am Games; it’s something Canadian basketball fans could get used to.

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