EDMONTON — Canada’s women’s basketball team is Rio bound.
Kia Nurse led the way with 20 points as the Canadians defeated Cuba 82-66 in the gold medal game of the FIBA Americas women’s basketball championship on Sunday to officially clinch a berth at next year’s Olympics.
“This has been an incredible experience,” said Nurse, who was named the tournament’s most valuable player. “We are all so pumped about this. To be able to qualify a year in advance and play as well as we did was amazing.”
Natalie Achonwa had 12 points for Canada, which went undefeated through the tournament to extend its winning streak to 14 consecutive games on home soil.
It’s only the second time that Canada emerged victorious at the Americas tournament, previously wining it in 1995 in Hamilton — the only other time they served as the host nation. The Canadians entered the tournament with plenty of momentum after recently beating the United States for gold at the Pan American Games in Toronto.
“It is kind of exactly as I had dreamed,” said Canadian captain and 15-year national team vet Kim Gaucher. “The crowd was chanting Rio at the end of the game and I was trying to hold back tears and keep composed because there was still 90 seconds left to play. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and man, we had a lot of fun.”
Canada got off to a rough start, trailing 18-10 with two minutes left in the opening quarter. They were able to bounce back and lead 44-35 at the half.
A disastrous start to the third quarter for the host team saw Cuba go on an 11-point run and lead 46-44, but the Canadians regained their composure to hold a 65-54 advantage heading into the fourth.
Gaucher said that qualifying for Rio now should only help their chances when the Olympics actually roll around.
“It’s a huge advantage for us,” she said.
“Heading into London we were training to peak for the qualifying tournament. Now we will be training to peak in Rio. That’s a huge difference. The number one goal is to get on the podium in Rio, it’s not just to get there.”
“We certainly fired some shots out there that Canada is coming,” added Canadian coach Lisa Thomaidis. “The amount that everyone improved from last year to this year was remarkable. If we do it again next year, who knows what is possible.”
Leidys Oquendo scored 25 points for Cuba, which was ranked fourth in the Americas and 13th in the world to Canada’s rating of third in the Americas and 10th in the world.
There has been plenty of recent history between the two nations, including Canada’s stunning 92-43 win over Cuba on Thursday to close out the round robin.
The two teams also played each other twice at the last FIBA Americas in Mexico in 2013 where the Canadians beat Cuba 53-40 in the preliminary round finale to win their group.
The Cubans bounced back to defeat Canada 79-71 in the gold medal game three days later.
Cuba will have a second chance at advancing through to the Olympics, having secured a berth in next year’s FIBA women’s Olympic qualifying tournament.