Re-energized Canadian women's basketball team sets sights on World Cup podium
Strong group stage presents shot at 1st medal in major tournament since 1986
There wasn't much time for things to come together for Canada at the World Cup.
Grouped with the second-, third- and fourth-place finishers from the Olympics, and under the tutelage of a new head coach in Victor Lapeña, the fourth-ranked Canadian women's basketball team could have been forgiven for counting moral victories at the tournament in Australia.
Instead, Canada reeled off three straight wins to open the tournament, eventually finishing 4-1 to place second in its group.
Now, not only are the Canadians off to the knockout stage, but they're one win away from playing for their first medal at a major tournament since 1986.
Canada next meets 17th-ranked Puerto Rico in the quarter-finals on Thursday at 12:30 a.m. ET. A win likely sets up a semifinal showdown against the powerhouse U.S. on Friday.
"They don't give up. They don't rest on the court. When they rest on the court, it's because they don't realize it. As a coach, what more can I ask them?" Lapeña said after Canada beat Serbia in its opener.
"They are working all the time and they trust in my job, in our [coaching staff]. When you play with your best, when you play with the maximum possibilities that you have, good things happen. We are not perfect but we are learning this process."
WATCH | Canada routs Mali to complete group stage:
Lapeña came in preaching an updated on-court philosophy featuring free-flowing offence and aggressive defence. But the rambunctious Spaniard forewarned the changes could result, at least at first, in increased turnovers and fouls.
Expectations for the tournament, with star player Kia Nurse just returning from injury and minimal time with Lapeña, were being held in check.
As it turns out, Canada learned quickly. Its win over Serbia was a measure of vengeance for a four-point loss to open the Olympics. It then beat Olympic silver medallist Japan and bronze medallist France as well as No. 37 Mali.
Lapeña's system appears to be working, too. Canada placed middle of the pack in turnovers while swiping the fourth-most steals of any team. Meanwhile, only Puerto Rico and the U.S. committed fewer fouls.
"I am very proud of my players because we are growing up as a team," Lapeña said after the Japan win. "They trust a lot in me and in the coaches and it means I can think about how we are able to win [against] Japan doing this, this and this, and they try to execute perfectly."
Alexander, Carleton lead way
Former WNBA centre Kayla Alexander has looked particularly rejuvenated in Lapeña's system as one of only two players to average more than 10 rebounds per game in the group stage
"I like his philosophies, especially on defence. I love that he challenges us. He has me doing things on defence I normally wouldn't think I could do," Alexander said after Canada's 14-point win against France.
Bridget Carleton, who plays with team captain Natalie Achonwa on the Minnesota Lynx, also continued her strong international play dating to the Olympics.
After struggling to a one-for-14 shooting game against France, the 25-year-old found her stroke and made more than 50 per cent of her field goals, including a 12-for-19 mark from deep, over the final three games.
"She's always been explosive," Achonwa said. "She's always been a shooter and a scorer, but she's really embraced this moment and our need for her to fill that role. And I'm glad to see that the world gets to see as well, who I've known that Bridget Carleton has been all this time."
WATCH | Carleton sparks Canada past Japan:
Nurse, playing her first competitive games since the 2021 WNBA playoffs on a restriction of about 20 minutes per game, appears unafraid and relatively explosive.
The Hamilton, Ont., native averaged nine points per game while shooting just above 40 per cent.
Puerto Rico up next
Attention now turns to a feisty Puerto Rico team, which finished 2-3 including a narrow three-point loss against fifth-ranked Belgium.
Puerto Rico knocked Canada out of the AmeriCup semifinals last year, though that Canadian team was missing its WNBA players and included the likes of now-retired Miranda Ayim and Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe.
A key for Canada will be limiting shooting guard Arella Guirantes, who tied American WNBA MVP A'Ja Wilson as the leading scorer on a per-game basis in the group stage.
Still, Canada should be favoured.
"It's very different playing against Puerto Rico, with all due respect, than to play against USA," Lapeña said. "USA is playing in a different tournament, on a different planet. They're playing Space Jam."
Following its strong group stage, Canada now has the opportunity to elevate itself into a whole new stratosphere.