Basketball·Preview

Canada's 1st female in-game dunker ready to make mark on March Madness

Laeticia Amihere, one of four Canadians on top seeds in the upcoming NCAA women's tournament, is hoping to win a college national championship and Olympic gold all in the next six months.

South Carolina's Laeticia Amihere among 27 Canadians competing in women's tourney

South Carolina forward Laeticia Amihere, seen above in a February game, is one of four Canadians on top seeds in the NCAA women's tournament. (Butch Dill/The Associated Press)

Coming off the weak side, Laeticia Amihere leaped to deflect her opponent's pass, batting it toward halfcourt.

The six-foot-three Canadian chased after the ball, retrieved it with no one around her near the timeline, dribbled once, took two strides and made history.

Amihere, then 15, became the first Canadian woman to dunk in a game.

"A lot of people would tell me that's not typical for girls to do that. And I don't know how many other Canadians have been able just to do it, even in practice. So I knew that when I did it, it was something remarkable," Amihere, now 19, told CBC Sports.

The dunk, which came in a 2017 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) tournament game, left the rim rattling and college scouts turning their heads.

"It was crazy. Like none of my teammates expected it. The coaches didn't expect it. But I think it was really just the momentum that carried me," Amihere said.

Amihere, of Mississauga, Ont., now plays collegiately for the South Carolina Gamecocks, a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament. South Carolina's first game is Sunday against No. 16 Mercer at 6 p.m. ET.

She's one of four Canadians representing each of the top seeds among 27 total competing.

Amihere typically serves as a versatile sparkplug off the bench for the Gamecocks. She averaged 6.2 points and five rebounds over 17.4 minutes per game in her 2020-21 sophomore season — both improvements over her freshman campaign when a serious knee injury zapped some athleticism and left her in a bulky knee brace.

"It kind of held me back, but just being able to be more explosive this year, definitely, I feel like is a big [improvement on] last year," Amihere said.

In the next five months, she'll try to win a college national championship and follow it up with Olympic gold in Tokyo.

"I really hope this can be a breakout tournament for me. I feel it. And I've been putting in the work," Amihere said.

Amihere, one of four NCAA players invited to the Canadian women's basketball virtual training camp in February, says she'll play in Tokyo if asked.

"Making an Olympic team and competing for my country has always been my one of my biggest dreams. [My ultimate goals in basketball are] competing in the Olympics and making the WNBA," she said.

Amihere said she envisions herself fitting right into coach Lisa Thomaidis' high-pace system with Team Canada as a disruptive forward who is agile and can run the fast break.

She was part of the team representing Canada at the Olympic qualifying tournament in February 2020.

"She just looks comfortable — confident scoring around the basket, handling the ball a little bit away from the basket [and] just seems to fit in. Great rebounder. She's such a presence around the hoop as well," Thomaidis said.

At South Carolina, Amihere plays for head coach Dawn Staley, who doubles as the American national team coach. While they may have the book on each other as opponents in Tokyo, Amihere says Staley has been a massive influence on her burgeoning basketball career.

"She's on me every single play and telling me what I need to do better. And I think that's helped me so much, and especially in games, letting me work through what I need to work through in order to be who she thinks I can be. She instills a lot of confidence in me so I definitely don't take that lightly," Amihere said.

Thomaidis, meanwhile, sees no issues in having one of her national-team players develop under an opposing coach.

"Laeticia during the recruiting process was very open, but her goal was to get to the Olympics, play for the national team. So Dawn really respects those wishes and is doing everything she can to prepare Laeticia for that," Thomaidis said.

Canadian content

But first, Amihere may have to go through some Canadian teammates in the NCAA tournament.

The only time she could meet UConn's Aaliyah Edwards, with whom she said she shares a friendly rivalry, is in the championship game.

She could also see Canada training camp invitees Merissah Russell of No. 2 Louisville and Shaina Pellington of No. 3 Arizona in the Final Four.

"Even last year at training camp, we would talk about when our teams would meet, but it's awesome. I love those guys and it's just awesome to be able to compete with them," Amihere said.

Connecticut's Aaliyah Edwards, right, could face off against Amihere in the NCAA national championship game. (Jessica Hill/The Associated Press)

A freshman with the Huskies, Edwards averaged over 10 points and five rebounds per game, earning her conference's sixth woman of the year award. She finished the season shooting 68 per cent from the field.

Alongside American phenom Paige Bueckers, Edwards represents the next wave of talent at traditional powerhouse UConn.

"She sure hasn't disappointed. She's had some very impressive games and I think probably the most impressive, aside from her rebounding prowess, is her efficiency from the floor. … She's really perfected her role this year," Thomaidis said.

Pellington, meanwhile, came off the bench for the Canadian qualifying team last February. The explosive guard is playing the same role with the Wildcats.

"An exceptional talent and has done well with us. And it's been fun to watch her for sure," Thomaidis said.

Russell was a late addition to training camp when the roster expanded to 20 players. Though she may not wind up in Tokyo, the 19-year-old shooting guard is firmly on the radar.

"She's pretty versatile. She can play a number of different positions and we like what we've seen from her. She definitely competes. She knows the game, just young, inexperienced and is just going to continue to get better and better," Thomaidis said.

The NCAA tournament begins Sunday, and a national champion will be crowned April 4. The Canadian women's team is planning on holding training camp in May ahead of the FIBA AmeriCup tournament in June, which is followed by the Olympics.

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