Basketball

Early Olympic exit marks end of disappointing Canadian basketball summer

The expectation for the Canadian women’s basketball team at the Tokyo Olympics was to win a quarter-final game, at the very least. Instead, it won’t even play in one.

Women fail to make Tokyo quarter-finals after 1-2 record in group play

Canada's Kia Nurse, centre, shot just 33 per cent from the field during the Tokyo Olympics. (Eric Gay/The Associated Press)

The expectation for the Canadian women's basketball team at the Tokyo Olympics was to win a quarter-final game, at the very least.

Instead, it won't even play in one.

After finishing group play at 1-2, Canada missed the knockout rounds on a point differential tiebreaker. It lost in the quarter-finals in each of the past two Olympics.

Australia needed to defeat Puerto Rico by 24 points or more on Monday, and they did just that, notching a 27-point victory.

The result was just enough for the Aussies to claim the final spot in the quarter-finals, and end the Canadian hopes of advancing.

The fourth-ranked Canadians opened the tournament with a timid loss to No. 8 Serbia and took care of business against No. 19 Korea before losing their final game handily against No. 3 Spain.

The early exit wraps a disappointing summer for Canada Basketball, which also saw its senior men's team fail to even make the final of an Olympic qualifier played in Victoria in June, instead losing to a Czech Republic side which went on to win just one game in Tokyo.

For a country that claims the second-most NBA players in the world, plus three WNBAers, the events of the summer can only be described as a failure.

Sure, there were challenges. For example, the women's team couldn't be fully together between qualifying for these Olympics in February 2020 and the Games themselves due to COVID-19 restrictions in the country. 

Accordingly, Canada struggled with turnovers and its halfcourt offence, two telltale signs of a lack of chemistry — especially in the opening loss to Serbia, a team that was otherwise unimpressive in group play.

WATCH | Canada falls to Serbia in Olympic opener:

But the depth and upper-end talent in the country was supposed to be enough to overcome those setbacks, and to power both teams into the second tier of international contenders, behind the U.S. in both genders.

For the women, that star was supposed to be Kia Nurse. And after being a WNBA all-star in 2019, the Hamilton, Ont., native appeared to be on track. Clutch performances for Canada at the 2015 Pan Am Games and 2016 Olympics were signs of what she could do on the international stage.

In the 2020 WNBA season, Nurse laboured through an ankle injury en route to a tough season on a two-win New York Liberty team. In 2021, she found her groove as a premier role player next to American Olympians Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner on the Phoenix Mercury.

As the go-to scorer once again for Canada in Tokyo, Nurse shot 33 per cent from the field, failing to make a basket inside the arc against Spain. 

WATCH | Canada drops 10-point decision to Spain:

In those moments when the offence was stuck, it needed to be Nurse who could create a shot out of nothing. That didn't happen.

Bridget Carleton, a guard/forward with the Minnesota Lynx, was instead Canada's most impressive player.

After a rough outing against Serbia, the 24-year-old came alive over the final two games, showing off her versatility as a shooter, playmaker and defender. But Carleton doesn't tend to create much offence on her own.

Carleton's WNBA teammate Natalie Achonwa also displayed her utility despite a recent knee injury, providing steady defence at the rim and hitting open shots when asked.

WATCH | Canada picks up only win of Olympics against Korea:

That makes three excellent role players for Canada, with college players Laeticia Amihere and Shaina Pellington providing a spark of hope for the future too.

But none are the star that Tokyo 2020 showed Canada so desperately needs — at least not yet.

And while Canada's defence was as good as advertised, its offence is the reason its Olympics are over.

What comes next?

In the near term, Nurse, Carleton and Achonwa will jump right back into their WNBA seasons, perhaps with a chip on their shoulders. Amihere, Pellington and Aaliyah Edwards have another college season coming soon, while the rest of the roster will head back overseas.

The next international window is scheduled for November, which should give Canada its first opportunity to hold a full-fledged training camp since before the pandemic (excluding the few weeks before Tokyo). 

By February, Canada will be playing in a qualifying tournament for the 2022 World Cup in Australia, set to take place in Sydney in September.

That's the final major tournament before the 2024 Paris Olympics. It's unclear if qualifying for those Games will work the same way it did for Tokyo.

There will be some roster turnover, with veteran Miranda Ayim already announcing her retirement after these Games and Kim Gaucher unlikely to still be in the roster mix by 2024.

Canada's young core and development pipeline should mean those players, plus others who may depart, are replaced with equal or better competitors. 

Like after the men's loss, the future remains bright. 

But the present is undoubtedly dim.

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