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Canada pulls away from U.S. Virgin Islands to move to 2-1 in FIBA qualifiers

A strong showing that restores some point differential comfort.

Canada 118, U.S. Virgin Islands 89 | Box Score

Following a decent but ultimately disappointing 1-1 open to the 2019 FIBA World Cup qualification process in November, Canada Basketball was back at it with a new-look senior men’s team looking to more emphatically assert itself as a power in the Americas region. They looked to do so against the U.S. Virgin Islands, the lone team in Group D the Canadians had yet to play. It was also a USVI team that had just eight players in total (thanks, goofy format), negating any potential for Canada to play what should have been unnecessary “no time to gel” or “lack of chemistry” or “new head coach” cards. Those are reasonable caveats to any team’s performance in the new qualification procedure, and ones that hold little weight for a team expected to make the next round without too much trouble, even with a thinned-out player pool available in mid-season.

While it looked as if they may early, Canada needed none of those caveats anyway, decisively beating the Virgin Islands 118-89 in the Bahamas on Thursday. Given 10 minutes or so to find a groove, Canada proved too much, led by huge games from Melvin Ejim and Brady Heslip, strong contributions from Anthony Bennett, and some exceptionally hot shooting throughout.

Canada opened with a fresh-look starting five that included a new starter in Kaza Keane and two new players altogether in Adika Peter-McNeilly and Ejim along with stalwarts Heslip and Joel Anthony. Heslip opened the game with a triple, as he’s wont to do, but the offense took a while to get going in general, the lone bright spot being two quick fouls on important USVI center Jamaal Samuel. He stayed in the game and helped build an eight-point lead for his 1-1 side with physical screens and strong play on the glass.

Head coach Gordie Herbert called for an early timeout to try to wake his team up, and Ejim responded with a drive and a triple shortly after. With Bennett providing a bit more spacing off the bench alongside Heslip and Ejim, the offense opened up some, and Peter-McNeilly hitting from outside seemed to allow for a bit of an exhale after a few tight possessions. The defense was out of sync early, though, with Deon Edwin and Florida alum Walter Hodge proving a little problematic and USVI shooting 73 percent inside the arc in the quarter. Canadian basketball OG Jermaine Anderson got in on the somewhat unexpected 3-point barrage, and after Bennett hit a pair of free throws and then threw down a late dunk, Canada had survived a pretty shaky first quarter that saw them down double-figures with just a six-point hole to climb out of.

Bennett opened the second with a bucket off of a nice big-to-big cross-post from Dyshawn Pierre, an interior look it took Canada a little while to go to with a distinct size advantage. They continued to sprinkle in 3-point attempts around forays into the paint, with the issue being USVI’s ability to push in transition off of misses. It seemed a worthwhile trade-off, and when Bennett found Ejim for a high-low and free throws, Canada appeared poised to take control back. A curious abandonment of a defensive rebound delayed the completion of the comeback, but Ejim got the two back quickly and Heslip finally put Canada ahead with a three off of a Jevohn Shepherd steal.

Edwin continued his torrid half for the Virgin Islands, getting into a bit of a back-and-forth with Ejim. He nearly won the battle between top scorers in the half, too, only for Ejim to take over down the stretch and take a 21-16 edge in that individual battle. Ejim and Heslip had a really nice two-man game going, and Ejim’s teammates across the board were willing to look for him while hot. USVI’s slight regression on twos combined with their cold night from long-range – the former of which a more engaged Canada side deserves some credit for – saw them score just 21 in the second quarter, and led by Ejim, eight from Bennett, and Heslip’s third three, Canada pushed out to a 53-48 halftime lead.

The pull-away began in earnest from there, as Keane, Heslip, and Peter-McNeilly combined for four triples in the first two minutes of the third to put Canada ahead 14. Who needs to go inside, after all? The Virgin Islands continued a drive-kick-swing approach to try to find seams in the Canadian defense, looking for Edwin to create in particular. They also ratcheted up the pressure, forcing Canada into an eight-second violation. Heslip quickly snuffed out any potential momentum, hitting a pair of jumpers to give him 11 points in the quarter. Bennett followed with a dunk, Aaron Best and Anderson got back in on the long-range barrage, and Bennett’s first triple of the night made it seven Canadians to hit from outside (the team was 15-of-30 at that point and would finish 17-of-39). Georgio Milligan joined Edwin and Hodge into double-figures, but it was for naught as Canada extended their hold on the game to 17 entering the fourth.

It was a fairly rote close-out from there, the lead at one point reaching 33, which allowed Herbert to spread the minutes around and get extended run for some of the depth pieces. Thomas Scrubb was the lone Canadian not to play, Pierre was the only player who played not to score, and while Ejim’s 28-8-3, Heslip’s 22-5-5, and Bennett’s 13-5-2 – 63 points on a combined 43 possessions with 18 rebounds and 10 assists in 64 total minutes each with a plus-20 mark or better – were the most important contributions as Canada built their lead, the supporting cast contributed 55 points on 54.3-percent shooting around them, too. These experiences, however “garbage time” they may feel, are important as Canada faces more qualification rounds with potentially limited player availability, and the ability of the team’s depth to extend and maintain leads is big given the point-differential tie-breaker throughout the tournament.

With the win, Canada improves to 2-1 in Group D, with a plus-41 point differential. Later tonight, the Dominican Republic will play against the Bahamas, the former of whom is 2-0 with a plus-22 mark and the latter of whom is 0-2 and in desperate need of an upset. Canada is in action against the Bahamas on Sunday at 8 p.m. with a chance to clinch their spot in the second round (September 2018-February 2019), though they’ll want to play well this summer regardless since results carry over from the first qualification round.