Canadian women's basketball team learns tough Olympic lessons after disappointing AmeriCup
College stars Laeticia Amihere, Shaina Pellington make case for Tokyo roster
From 16 months without a game to seven contests in eight days, the Canadian women's basketball team made its return to the court last week at the FIBA AmeriCup.
Canada, which won gold in two of the previous three iterations of the tournament and hadn't missed the podium since 2007, finished fourth.
After sweeping through the four-game round robin and easily winning a quarter-final against the Dominican Republic, Canada was stunned 65-61 in the semis by hosts Puerto Rico. It then lost a double-OT decision against Brazil in the bronze-medal game.
Ranked fourth in the world, Canada carried hopes of gold into the tournament.
"These close games are really a gift for us to be in, to be honest," head coach Lisa Thomaidis said after the Brazil loss. "We're certainly disappointed we didn't come out on the winning end, but it shows a lot about our team. They fought hard, hard, hard. They showed a lot of passion, a lot of grit."
After entering the fourth quarter against Brazil down 15 points, Canada battled back to force OT, even missing a potential buzzer-beating, game-winner at the end of regulation.
The AmeriCup was the rare tournament in which the result was truly less important than the process. Priorities for Canada were gaining reps together, avoiding injury, evaluating talent and then, finally, winning.
Still, there's clearly room for improvement as Canada chases its first Olympic basketball medal since 1936. Meanwhile, the U.S. announced an Olympics roster so stacked on Monday that young star Sabrina Ionescu didn't even make the cut.
It's why Thomaidis was happy to be in three close games – a four-point round-robin win over Brazil plus the playoff contests.
Of the 12 players in Puerto Rico, 11 played regular minutes and only college guard Merissah Russell was mostly left on the bench.
That spread serves two purposes: testing out different lineups, and not overworking anyone following long overseas seasons ahead of the Olympics.
WATCH | Canada falls to Brazil in bronze-medal game:
Natalie Achonwa status unknown
But while Canadians at the AmeriCup escaped relatively healthy, a key WNBA piece did not. Forward Natalie Achonwa suffered an MCL sprain, and the Minnesota Lynx say she is out indefinitely.
Depending on the severity of the sprain, Achonwa could be ready just in time for the Olympics, though a worst-case scenario would see her miss the Games entirely.
The plan would likely be for Achonwa to start alongside one of two former WNBAers in Kayla Alexander or Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe.
In the meantime, forward Laeticia Amihere, a 19-year-old who recently wrapped her redshirt freshman season at South Carolina, was among the eye-openers in Puerto Rico.
Amihere averaged 13 points and 7.7 rebounds over the seven games, gradually earning more playing time. By the Brazil loss, Amihere was playing clutch minutes over Alexander, where she hit a game-tying three-pointer at the end of regulation.
"She's fearless and so young, but certainly doesn't play like a young one. Real happy with how she did at this tournament," Thomaidis said.
Throughout, Amihere showed the athleticism that made her the first Canadian woman to dunk in a game at just 15 years old. After knee surgery cost her an entire college season, the Mississauga, Ont., native appears back to full health.
It is worth noting that performance alone was likely not the sole reason for Amihere playing over Alexander. The latter, 30, is virtually assured an Olympic spot and didn't do anything to change that, averaging nine points and seven rebounds per game.
Amihere was one of four college players on the roster, also including UConn's Aaliyah Edwards, Arizona's Shaina Pellington and Russell.
While Edwards, a forward, saw her playing time fade with the emergence of Amihere, Pellington shot from the fringes of the roster to a key contributor.
The 22-year-old Pickering, Ont., native dazzled with her speed and ability to drive to the basket at will. But she also seemed overzealous at times — specifically in stepping out of bounds during a crucial late-game possession against Puerto Rico that could have tied the game.
Thomaidis left with interesting decision
With guards Kia Nurse and Bridget Carleton set to join the team for the Olympics, plus Kim Gaucher likely assured a spot if she chooses to play, Thomaidis is left with an interesting decision for her fourth guard spot.
Pellington can provide instant offence off the bench, but players like Jamie Scott and Sami Hill display composure that Pellington may lack at this stage. Scott especially was calm in helping guide the comeback against Brazil.
Pellington may also be redundant alongside Nirra Fields, a similarly explosive guard who sat out the Brazil loss for rest — perhaps a sign the team is already comfortable taking her to Tokyo.
Aislinn Konig, a 23-year-old shooting guard cut by the Washington Mystics in training camp, eventually earned a starting role in the AmeriCup thanks to her 47.8 per cent three-point shooting.
Canada is now headed back to its training facility in Tampa, Fla., where the men's team currently resides. In the next few weeks, Thomaidis and general manager Denise Dignard will face the difficult task of picking 12 players to bring to Tokyo.
The women will then head to Kariya City in Japan before the Olympic tournament begins July 26.
And that's when the games will really count.