Canadian women's basketball team faces tournament-defining game against Korea

An opening four-point loss to Serbia has quickly dwindled the Canadian women's basketball team's margin for error at the Tokyo Olympics. Now, the world's No. 4 team faces a crucial game against 19th-ranked Korea.

Must continue forging aggressive identity shown in 2nd half of Serbia loss

Canada's Shaina Pellington walks off the court as Serbia players celebrate their 72-68 win to open their Olympic basketball tournament in Tokyo. (Eric Gay/The Associated Press)

One loss and the Canadian women's basketball team is already in early trouble at the Olympics.

One loss in which a steady shooter, Bridget Carleton, missed two clutch free throws and Canada made just five of its 24 three-point attempts in a 72-68 defeat to eighth-ranked Serbia.

Now, No. 4 Canada faces a matchup against No. 19 South Korea on Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET — a game the Canadians may have pencilled in as a win, only to see the Koreans push No. 3 Spain in an opening four-point loss of their own.

A win over Korea would put the team in good position to reach the quarter-finals, if not as a top seed. It would afford Canada extra time to jell in a relatively new system — a chance to briefly breathe.

Lose, and Canada could be staring down an early exit.

The Olympic women's basketball tournament is divided into three pools of four teams. The top two from each pool, plus the two best third-place teams reach the quarter-finals.

Should Canada lose to Korea, it would need to beat Spain just to earn a shot at the knockout round. The tie-breaker within groups is head-to-head matchup, while across groups it's point differential.

Prior to the Olympics, Canada head coach Thomaidis touted the tournament's depth, citing 10 teams in the podium hunt. She said that's proven true thus far.

"Certainly Korea played Spain tight and we're aware of that. I think there have been a number of comments earlier today just about the parity that is in the entire Olympic draw and any team is capable of beating anyone else," Thomaidis said following the Serbia loss.

WATCH | Canada narrowly loses basketball opener to Serbia:

Canada Basketball unveils women's team heading to Tokyo Olympics

7 months ago
Duration 2:23
CBC Sports' Andi Petrillo and Meghan McPeak name some athletes to watch for as Canada Basketball named their roster for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. 2:23

For the entirety of the first half against Serbia, Canada seemed overmatched — unable to create easy looks in its half-court offence and undersized on defence, leading to an eight-point deficit after two quarters.

It looked the part of a team that hadn't been fully together in person since qualifying for these Olympics in February 2020. In June, the team placed a disappointing fourth in the FIBA AmeriCup minus its WNBA players.

But the second half provided some promise as Canada rediscovered its identity.

"Our style of play is we want to get out, and we want to be dynamic, and I thought we slowed the ball down at times and played a little bit into their hands. We got that corrected in the second half. But we'll need to do that sooner in the next game," Thomaidis said.

It's not often a team forces 28 turnovers in the 40-minute FIBA game and loses, yet that's what Canada managed to accomplish. It averaged just one point off each of those turnovers, while a strong shooting night from Serbia at 50 per cent negated the fact that Canada attempted 11 extra shots.

WATCH | Breaking down Canada's roster:

Kayla Alexander has her sights set on a podium in Tokyo

10 months ago
Duration 5:50
Canadian women's national basketball team member Kayla Alexander sat down with North Courts host Vivek Jacob to talk about her experience in the NCAA, and her teams goals for the upcoming Tokyo games. 5:50

If Canada wants to play small — and it appears it does, with Thomaidis electing to leave both of the team's natural centres out of the starting lineup against Serbia — then it must find a way to create easier scoring opportunities in transition and improve on its 38 per cent shooting performance.

It's a fast style of play that requires team experience and reps together to perfect. 

Of course, the pandemic meant Canada wasn't afforded that luxury. Now it faces a cutthroat tournament that offers little margin for error, on the sport's biggest international stage.

"Every game at the Olympics is pressure-packed, we know that. We're here to win every one, so the approach doesn't change at all," Thomaidis said.

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