Photo courtesy Canada Basketball
Canada 75, Venezuela 66 | Box Score
As disappointing as their start to the FIBA Americup had been, with an upset loss to the U.S. Virgin Islands and an overtime heart-breaker against Aergentina, Canada entered their final round robin game with a sliver of hope of salvaging the group stage. Beating Venezuela might not be enough – they would need to beat them by a huge margin and then hope Argentina took care of the Virgin Islands to force a three-way tie-breaker. All they could control was what they could control.
For three quarters, it looked like Canada was destined for a similar fate as their last outings (and yes, their last meeting with Venezuela), the game staying far too tight to hope they’d pull away by double-digits in the end.
While the Canadian defense was game in the first half, Venezuela’s offense broke through in the third quarter. All told, though, it was the defensive effort that kept Canada’s hopes alive, with Venezuela shooting just 37.9 percent overall and running into trouble from beyond the arc to the tune of 7-of-26. Despite some trouble on their own glass at times, Canada would manage a rebounding edge overall, and played just a bit better on the break.
They also got deeper contributions than the Venezuelans, once again playing 11 players, with four bench contributors scoring in support of Xavier Rathan-Mayers’ game-high 22 points. Rathan-Mayes was once again the story here and has been, with little question, Canada’s best all-around player in the tournament. On Tuesday, his shot finally started dropping, too, and he added five rebounds and eight assists to his 8-of-17 night, playing to a plus-19 in his 32 minutes. If there’s a takeaway from these games, other than the oddness that the new FIBA qualification procedure is creating, it’s that Rathan-Mayes is a player to watch in training camp with the New York Knicks. That Canada’s offense kept clicking on a cool night for Brady Heslip and on a night Andrew Nicholson met some foul trouble says a lot about Rathan-Mayes’ floor generalship and the supporting roles played by Olivier Hanlan and Dyshawn Pierre.
Despite the strong defense and surviving offense, Canada still entered the fourth quarter in a draw. Winning was on the table, but it would take an enormous effort to secure a margin of victory large enough to move on. They tried, though, and the offense began firing on all cylinders with the sense of urgency dialed up. Canada scored the first five points of the quarter and barely looked back from there short of an abbreviated Venezuel comeback late, slowly expanding the lead down the stretch until it reached a game-high nine just before the final buzzer.
To be clear, beating Venezuela was a nice step forward from their first two games regardless of where they ended up in the pool, and showing the ability to pull away and take the point differential edge against them down the stretch was the best fire they’ve shown all tournament. That growth over the week is important, as are little victories in a tournament that doesn’t mean a ton on the road to proper World Cup qualifiers in November and February.
“A pretty talented group of teams here and there were no easy games,” head coach Roy Rana said. “This is a very experienced and tough Venezuela team, so it was nice for us to get a chance to grow every game. I take tremendous pride in our growth and result from today. Watching our young players get better everyday and watching a group that really began to understand how much we have to fight in every game to win. These games are about passion as much as they are about tactics and strategy. I think we got better and better and it’s been nothing but a positive experience here.”
But the expectation was to advance to the semi-finals, and winning by nine here left them short. Because the three-way tie-breaker only includes point differential in games between the tied teams, no Argentina victory margin against the Virgin Islands would matter – because the Islands had beaten Canada by 12 and both Venezuela games were close, the Virgin Islands were assured of the tie-breaker and a spot in the semi-finals. And so Canada’s tournament ends with a somewhat disappointing 1-2 with some growth shown after a pretty shaky opener. It’s something to build on, even if it’s not the outcome they were striving for.