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Olympics2012Canadian women could make some noise in London

Posted: Monday, July 23, 2012 | 10:44 AM

Categories: Olympics2012

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Fifteen-year veteran Teresa Gabriele, left, is the only player returning from Canada's last appearance at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. (CTK, Jaroslav Ozana/Associated Press) Fifteen-year veteran Teresa Gabriele, left, is the only player returning from Canada's last appearance at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. (CTK, Jaroslav Ozana/Associated Press)

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Canada will be cheering for the senior women's national team at the London Games as the squad makes their first Olympic appearance in 12 years. However, like most other Olympic sports, many won't think about everything that went in to getting there.
Whether you are a fan or not of the Olympics - and despite the extreme ease in which cynicism can drape these expensive, political extravaganzas - it's hard not to jump on the bandwagon for two weeks every two years. And that's how most sports fans view it.

The majority of people care very little about modern pentathlon in May of an odd-numbered year. And in Canada unfortunately, too many people don't care about basketball, especially the women's game.

Yet rightfully so, we'll all be cheering for our senior women's national team at the London Games as the squad makes their first Olympic appearance in 12 years. However like most other Olympic sports, many of us won't think about everything that went in to getting there, some of us preferring to throw around labels in the event a team of individual athlete comes home empty-handed.

For a sport as global as basketball, reaching London is an achievement in itself for the Canadian women, especially given the changes around the program in the past decade.

"It's hard to get to the Olympics," head coach Allison McNeill said last week in Toronto before the team took off for England. "I don't think people realize that until you have to compete against so many countries that have the same goal as you."

Canada's day

Canada's ticket to London was aptly punched on Canada Day with a 71-63 victory over Japan at the Olympic qualifier in Turkey. On it's own it was a coronation of sorts for a program that has been on a gradual incline since McNeill took the reins in 2002.

While they missed out on being Olympians in 2004 and 2008 with WNBA talent like Tammy Sutton-Brown and Kim Smith (Smith is on this team but no longer plays in the top pro women's league in the world), reaching London is a testament to the decade of hard work and resiliency that has flourished under McNeill's system.

"It's a pretty big deal. We're excited," said McNeill.

The only player returning from Canada's last appearance in Sydney - the high water mark for Canada Basketball as a whole - is point guard Teresa Gabriele, who in a decade and a half with the national program has learned to be philosophical about success.

"I've been playing on the team for 15 years, it could have potentially been my fourth Olympics now," said Gabriele, 33. "But it's only my second ... so (we) don't let these opportunities pass you by when they come your way."

Resilient squad

The team's resiliency was on display in Turkey, where after a tough three-point loss to Croatia, the squad bounced back the next day with a 17-point victory over Argentina and the win over Japan the day after that - teams that had both defeated Canada in the past year.

"A lot of people thought we were done (after the loss to Croatia) but we didn't think that," said McNeill. "I think those wins (over Argentina and Japan) galvanized us ... which is good because we're about to go play the best teams in the world.

"It's a very close knit group ... they've been through a lot together."

The "team game" is a cliché in basketball more than other sports given the star-based nature of the sport, but Canada plays it well. McNeill runs a 12-deep rotation, and they've earned respect from their opponents for the results. "We don't have four WNBA players ... we don't have a superstar, but we have a great team," she said. "Our identity has always been, 'be the best on that day.'"

Tough pool

As for the Olympics themselves, the reality is Canada is in tough. They are the fifth-ranked team in the their six-nation pool, with only host Great Britain behind them. Canada opens against Russia on Saturday, with Britain, France, Brazil and world No. 2 Australia to follow.

Assistant coach Lisa Thomaidis agrees that at the very least, the pressure is off.  "In terms of our pool, we're not looking too far ahead," she told me. "We're certainly not a medal favourite going in, and that's just fine. Hopefully we can take some teams by surprise."

And as for concerns about the circus that is the Olympics alongside the distractions of a fortnight in the world's largest co-ed dorm, McNeill is certain they won't be issues. "These girls have mental toughness," she said, referring to qualifier in Turkey. "We brought in a sports psychologist in four years ago. We've done a ton of work in this area."

McNeill added they made a lot of changes after the 2010 world championships in the Czech Republic, where Canada finished 12th. "We've talked a lot about distractions, we've talked about mental toughness. If we haven't prepared ourselves for this, it's going to be a shock to me."

Go girls.

Three players to watch

1. Teresa Gabriele, PG, Mission, B.C.

The starting point guard and team veteran brings a sense of urgency to the team, according to McNeill. "She's very calm, she's not intimidated by any level of competition," McNeill said.

2. Courtnay Pilypaitis, SG, Orleans, Ont.

The 23-year-old pro with VICI Kaunas in Lithuania dropped 21 points in the clincher against Japan, and McNeill loves her versatility. "She can do a little bit of everything ... she's about six-foot-one and physical, an underrated defender."

3. Natalie Achonwa, PF, Guelph, Ont.

The soon-to-be junior at Notre Dame - who reached the NCAA championship game in April - started with the national program at age 16. "She's one of the most intelligent players I've ever coached," says McNeill.

The rest of the women

As per usual, the discussion begins and usually ends with the United States. Our fine neighbours have convincingly dominated competition at the Olympics since the women's game was added in Montreal in 1976, failing to win gold only twice in Summer Games they participated in ('76 and '92). They've never come away from an Olympics without hardware of some sort (the only exception being the 1980 Moscow boycott).

Legendary Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma's troops are a bit long in the tooth this year however, with half the team over 30. Still, for what it's worth the squad led by Lindsay Whalen, Maya Moore, Tamika Catchings and Candace Parker has absolutely dominated their pre-Olympic exhibition sked, winning by an average margin of 31.

Guard Diana Taurasi told the Associated Press that the team has a chip on their shoulder this year. Despite winning four straight gold medals, they still feel like they are still seeking respect. "That's a heck of a motivator for all of us," she said. "Our level is so high, it becomes normal and even to the public it's 'they should win the gold medal. If they don't it's a terrible year.'"

Their toughest competition comes from Down Under, with the Australians led by Seattle Storm forward Lauren Jackson. Russia is always a contender, which is why Canada is in tough with the latter two in its pool. The Czech Republic, Spain and Brazil round out the world top six, although Brazil took a major hit Friday when they lost perhaps their top player, WNBA forward Iziane Castro Marques, for the Games after suspension for violating an unspecified team rule.

Medal picks:

Gold: USA

Silver: Australia           

Bronze: Czech Republic

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