OSTEND, Belgium — Canada’s women’s basketball team celebrated at centre court holding aloft a giant ticket that read: "Qualified."
Natalie Achonwa scored 24 points and grabbed eight rebounds to lead the Canadians to an 80-50 rout of Sweden on Saturday, clinching Canada its third consecutive Olympic berth.
"For the team to qualify with a 30-point victory is pretty special. I think it really speaks to how far this team has come," said head coach Lisa Thomaidis.
Shaina Pellington added 11 points, while Kia Nurse and Miranda Ayim chipped in with 10 apiece.
After edging Belgium 61-56 on Thursday, Canada needed only to finish ahead of Belgium or Sweden in the four-team qualifying tournament to punch its ticket to Tokyo.
The thumping of Sweden was a massive punctuation mark on FIBA’s new three-tournament qualifying format. Canada’s top women had travelled from numerous points abroad over the past six months — including as far away as Australia — to don the Maple Leaf. As a result, Canada lost just once — to the top-ranked Americans — over its 12 qualifying games.
If the team’s excitement was measured on Saturday, it’s because Canada’s job isn’t done. Ranked an all-time best No. 4 in the world, the Canadians have their sights set on the Olympic podium in Tokyo, after being ousted in the quarterfinals in both 2012 and ’16.
"Having some expectations of being there tempers a little bit of the excitement right now, when we think back to 2012, we were losing our minds (with excitement after qualifying)," Thomaidis said. "But I think there’s high expectations on this team and this group, so it does temper it. But I can tell ya we’re a pretty excited group right now, I think it hasn’t really sunk in quite yet."
The basketball women are the eighth Canadian team to qualify for Tokyo, joining the women’s soccer, rugby sevens, softball and water polo squads and the men’s field hockey, rugby sevens and volleyball teams. Canada’s women’s soccer team clinched its berth a day earlier with a 1-0 win over Costa Rica.
Canada’s previous high at a non-boycotted Games was five teams — excluding the 1976 Olympics in Montreal when the country sent nine teams as host.
Achonwa, Kim Gaucher and Miranda Ayim will all make their third Olympic appearance in Tokyo.
"It hasn’t really set in yet but listening to (Thomaidis) talk about it being my, Kim and Miranda’s third Olympics kind of made me emotional," Achonwa said. "Knowing that the injuries, the fight, not only just 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 that at an Olympic Games, and to qualify for another Olympic Games … definitely do not take it lightly."
Achonwa, who suffered a torn ACL in her senior season at Notre Dame but went on to play for the WNBA’s Indiana Fever, paid tribute to all the Canadian women who’d blazed a trail before her.
"That’s why we come every summer. That’s why we commit to Canada Basketball, because we know that it’s bigger than the individual. We know that it’s bigger than just me. It’s bigger than any player who’s had the chance to put on the jersey right now," she said. "It’s the years we didn’t qualify for the Olympics. It’s the people, the vets who paved the way for us to have this opportunity."
The Canadians got off to a shaky start against the 22nd-ranked Swedes. They gave up 12 turnovers in the first half, and trailed by five points after an 8-0 Swedish run to start the second quarter.
But Canada responded and a lay-up by Kayla Alexander, who returned for this tournament after being sidelined for four months with a knee injury, sent Canada into the halftime break with a 37-31 lead.
The Canadians broke the game open with a dominant third quarter and when Ayim connected on a jump shot with 12 seconds left in the frame, Canada went up 59-41 to start the fourth.
"Definitely had its ups and downs, but I think the energy we came out with in the second half really set us apart," Achonwa said. "I think we always are focused, I remember Miranda coming in the huddle saying we need to win these first three minutes (of the second half) and we did that by getting stops and staying aggressive on offence."
Canada went ahead by as many as 32 points in the game’s dying seconds.
The Canadians play Japan on Sunday in a game that means little more now than preparation for the Olympics.
"It’s a start to Tokyo now," Achonwa said. "It’s an opportunity that we don’t get all the time to play a different style of basketball, so I think our mentality is the same, we came in wanting to win every game in this tournament, and we will keep that mentality going forward. It’s a great prep game, and Japan’s looking at it the same way, so I think it’s going to be a competitive game and a game that we would love to use to prepare for Tokyo."
The Canadian men’s team needs to win its last-chance tournament in late-June in Victoria, B.C., to book its first Olympic berth since the 2000 Sydney Games.