Canadian women’s basketball team turns attention to Rio

TORONTO — The Canadian women’s basketball team peaked at the perfect time this summer, using a gold-medal run at the Pan American Games in Toronto as a springboard for a dominant performance at the FIBA Americas women’s championship in Edmonton. Now, with a berth at the 2016 Summer Olympics locked up well in advance, the trick is figuring out how to do it again next summer.

TORONTO — The Canadian women’s basketball team peaked at the perfect time this summer, using a gold-medal run at the Pan American Games in Toronto as a springboard for a dominant performance at the FIBA Americas women’s championship in Edmonton. Now, with a berth at the 2016 Summer Olympics locked up well in advance, the trick is figuring out how to do it again next summer.

Canada won’t have the benefit of playing in back-to-back tournaments on home soil so it will take careful planning to ensure the team is playing its best basketball heading into the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. But unlike the 2012 Games in London, Canada has the luxury of time as it prepares for a podium run in Rio.

“Leading up to the Olympics we’ll be able to get some more games in direct preparation, so hopefully we’ll be able to get some games on home soil again before we head to Brazil,” head coach Lisa Thomaidis said on a conference call Monday. “It’s just a huge advantage to know this far out.”

Canada qualified for Rio on Sunday with an 82-66 win over Cuba in the final of the FIBA Americas tournament. That gives the Canadians an advantage they didn’t have in 2012, when they needed to play in a late qualification tournament to nab one of the last spots at in London.

“The biggest thing is we can prepare for exactly when we need to peak,” Thomaidis said. “The last time we had maybe two weeks to prepare and turn around and get to the Olympics.”

Qualification for Rio capped a successful summer for the Canadians that saw the emergence of guard Kia Nurse as a budding superstar. The 19-year-old Hamilton native had 20 points in Sunday’s win over Cuba and was named the most valuable player of the FIBA Americas tournament.

The University of Connecticut player was also dominant in Canada’s 81-73 win over the United States in the gold-medal match of the Pan Am Games in Toronto.

Nurse had 33 points against the Americans and was named Canada’s flag-bearer for the closing ceremony.

“I didn’t think she could do more that what she did in that Pan Am final but it seems the bigger the game, the more she rises to the occasion,” Thomaidis said.

“Her toughness and her will to win and fearlessness was showcased this past week.

“People notice her points but it’s really on the defensive side of the ball that she really has a tremendous impact. A 19-year-old who’s an MVP of the FIBA Americas tournament is really unheard of.”

Nurse’s tough approach is something the entire team has embraced. Canada showed its physical side last week in Edmonton, consistently outworking other teams for rebounds on both ends of the court and using interior toughness to get offensive production from power forwards and centres.

“We pride ourselves on the fact we’re a very tough team,” Thomaidis said.

“Certainly our bigs have come around over the past few years and we have some depth at that position now so we can roll people though. We’re used to being undersized and so we have to play very gritty. Over the entire summer we might have been a little bit undersized but we did not get outworked … and got a ton of offensive production from a position that we haven’t traditionally got a lot of production from.”

Canada will face tougher tests next year, where strong European teams and a full-strength American squad will be competing for Olympic medals. Still, going undefeated through the FIBA tournament, outscoring opponents by an average of 41.8 points per game in the process, indicates the Canadians will be a contender in Rio rather than a team that’s just happy to qualify.

“We played our best basketball at this tournament,” Thomaidis said.

“I thought we were pretty good at Pan Ams, but we just carried this through and continued to improve. The players need a break and they’re going to go back to their pro teams and NCAA teams and when we get back together next spring we’ll be on the same path and we’ll make sure we’re continuing to improve by the time Rio rolls around.”

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