Canada's women can control their Olympic basketball fate with win over Spain
Canadians likely clinch top spot in group with victory, but could be ousted with loss
Barring disaster, the Canadian women's basketball team should reach the quarter-finals at the Tokyo Olympics.
But Saturday night's game against Spain (9 p.m. ET, CBCSports.ca) will be crucial in determining the path for a team with a stated goal of playing for a medal following consecutive Olympic quarter-final defeats.
Opening ceremony flag-bearer Miranda Ayim laid it bare when the roster was announced in June.
"[The podium] has been the objective all along. We went into 2016 wanting to do the same thing and now we're in a place where we're expected to do that," she said.
With one round-robin game remaining, the final standings could still play out a number of different ways.
For Canada, it's fairly simple: beat Spain, and it will likely win its group. Lose, and a wild-card qualifier should still be in order. Either way, it would be on to the quarter-finals again.
However, all quarter-final appearances are not equal. In this Olympic tournament, the top four playoff teams are placed in one pot, and the bottom four in another. Knockout round matchups are then determined by draw.
WATCH | Canada downs South Korea for 1st win:
That means group winners cannot face off until the semifinals, and it means a Canada victory over Spain should guarantee it avoids the powerhouse Americans, likely to win their group, until at least the semifinals.
There is also the disaster scenario, in which Canada is blown out by Spain while Australia routs Puerto Rico in Group C action, likely eliminating the Canadians on point differential. Canada dropped a 15-point decision to Spain at 2018 worlds. Puerto Rico sports a minus-77 point differential over two games in Tokyo.
After an opening four-point loss to Serbia, fourth-ranked Canada rebounded to take care of No. 19 South Korea 74-53 and improve to 1-1. In Group A, Serbia is also 1-1, while Spain leads at 2-0 and Korea is winless.
"It's hard to go through an Olympic tournament and not have a loss somewhere. So if that's the depth that we get to — rock-bottom — we'll take it in that first game versus later in the tournament," starting guard Kia Nurse said after the win over Korea.
WATCH | Canada drop opener to Serbia:
Canada was able to ramp up its defence to fuel its offence in pulling away from Korea in the second half.
It'll need 40 minutes of the same against No. 3 Spain, its biggest test of group play.
"Just execute on offence more because Spain's a good, scrappy team. So just take care of the ball and apply defensive pressure and rebound," said guard Shay Colley.
WNBA swingwoman Bridget Carleton exemplified that process in the opening minutes of Canada's victory, blocking a jump shot before collecting the ball and finishing the play with a transition layup.
Carleton finished the game with 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists, consistently making the right reads on offence while seemingly everywhere defensively.
Execution, star power needed to beat Spain
In total, Canada turned the ball over just seven times against Korea after coughing it up 16 times to Serbia.
It could be a sign of a team who hadn't fully been together since qualifying for the Olympics in February 2020 starting to relearn each other's tendencies.
Head coach Lisa Thomaidis said the team is starting to play "Canada-style basketball," but there is work to be done.
"We want to play with pace, we want to play with speed. And our decision-making will be the critical difference between beating good teams and great teams," she said.
But while a well-executed game is important, Canada needs its best players to step up if it wants to beat Spain.
Carleton and Minnesota Lynx teammate Natalie Achonwa, who recorded a double-double, did that against Korea.
Nurse, the last of Canada's WNBA triumvirate and its biggest star, will need to improve on her combined nine-for-29 shooting to begin these Games. Especially when offensive sets break down, Canada has lacked a player that can create a bucket out of nothing.
Nurse is their best bet to do just that.
And if Canada is a legitimate podium contender — as its ranking indicates it should be — then it must prove it with a clean, competitive effort against Spain.
"We are really looking forward to this matchup. They are a team that has been on our radar for a while and we will be ready for them," Thomaidis said.
With files from CBC Sports' Jamie Strashin