Nobody said it was going to be easy for Team Canada to advance past the group stage of the FIBA AmeriCup, let alone win the event. And so far, it hasn’t been (check our coverage so far).
After a 72-63 opening night loss to host Brazil, Canada squeaked out a 84-78 win over Uruguay to improve to 1-1 in the tournament heading into Monday’s action, where they played the final match of the group stage against Colombia, who also entered the day with a 1-1 record, meaning the winner would move on and the loser would likely go home.
Despite Colombia being ranked No. 66 in the world and Canada being ranked No. 18, the Colombians have more experience playing together than the Canadian team, who was thrown together at the last minute, with several players making their Team Canada debut. Many (pessimistic Canadian) fans expected them to fail to advance past the group stage. And facing a 15-point deficit late in the third quarter against Colombia, it looked like that was going to be the case. Instead, Canada stormed back and won the game in the final seconds, winning 62-61 to advance to the knockout stage.
Canada jumped out to the early 12-6 lead and led 21-16 after the first quarter, where Trae Bell-Haynes was fantastic, hitting 2-threes and scoring 10-points in the opening quarter alone after only making just 1 three in the first two games combined. He finished with 19-points and 3 steals. While he also had 6 turnovers, mostly in the second half, struggling to make the right reads out of the pick-and-roll, he made up for it at the end of the game.
🇨🇦 @TraeBall_5 3️⃣ 👍
— FIBA AmeriCup (@AmeriCup) September 5, 2022
It was all Colombia for the next two quarters, winning the second quarter by a score of 22-9, holding Canada scorless for the first 6 minutes, and the third 16-12, scoring the first 8-points of the half, giving them a 50-35 lead with just over four minutes to go in the third quarter. Colombia’s two leading scorers for the tournament, Jaime Echenique and Juan Tello, proved too much for Canada’s bigs to handle, combining to score 32 out of Colombia’s 61 points, almost all of it coming in the post and at the free-throw line.
But after a timeout where we heard Canada’s head coach Nathaniel Mitchell tell his team to “swarm” Echenique as soon as he dribbled, Canada locked in on the defensive end and turned Colombia over 7 times from that point forward. Canada erased that 15-point deficit with a 27-11 run to end the game.
But it wasn’t just the improved defensive effort that allowed Canada back into this match. After playing two-big lineups for most of the first half, Mitchell went smaller in the second half despite Colombia being a big team that dominates inside, playing only one of Thomas Kennedy, Kalif Young, or Chad Posthumus for almost all of the second half and surrounding them with smaller, quicker players around the perimeter. Downsizing worked to perfection, with the Canadians better able to double-team the post and rotate out to shooters with their speed, wreaking havoc on Colombia’s ball-handlers.
In fact, Canada’s best lineups all tournament have been with only one big on the floor, as it opens up the spacing for outside shots and driving lanes while not giving away too much defensively or on the boards. It might make sense to split up Kennedy and Young going forward, having only one of them on the floor at all times while leaving Posthumus out of the rotation (he racked up 4 fouls in 5:22 minutes of action). Those lineups worked in the first game because Abu Kigab was able to slot in at the four and defend and rebound above his size, and they worked against Colombia because Lloyd Pandi did the same thing, using his strength and positioning to grab 7 rebounds, get his hands in passing lanes, and finish under the basket.
Overall, though, it was Canada’s guard play that allowed them to scrape out the win against Colombia. Despite Canada’s bigs getting outplayed and exploited, Canada’s guards put the team on their backs offensively, with Bell-Haynes carrying the torch in the first half and Banton stepping up big time in the second half, where he scored 15 of his 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists. Banton also went 4/7 from beyond the arc, which bodes well for his future as a Toronto Raptor. In total, Banton and Bell-Haynes combined for 39 points, 7/13 from three, 6/9 from the free-throw line, while the rest of the team combined for 23-points, 1/20 from three, and 0/6 from the line.
Those two were also key down the stretch. After trailing 59-55 with 5 minutes remaining, Banton hit a pull-up three on one play and then finished a tough and-one for another three-point play the next trip down the floor, tying the game 61-61 with 2:55 remaining. In a tightly contested final 2:55, neither team was able to score until Bell-Haynes was fouled in the open court with 1.8 seconds remaining and Canada in the penalty. He connected on the game-winning free throw and purposely missed the second to assure the win.
Canada is going to need more from guys like Jahvon Henry-Blair, Jaylen Babb Harrison, Kalif Young, Devonte Bandoo, and Kadre Gray (if he can play after suffering an ankle injury and being helped off the floor against Colombia) if they want to continue advancing in this tournament. But it’s huge that Banton and Bell-Haynes have rounded their form, and Kennedy has also been consistent throughout. Canada should continue to lean on the Banton-Kennedy two-man game, especially their spread pick-and-roll, as it created great looks all game for the Canadians.
Canada won’t play again until the quarterfinal on Thursday, September 8th. While it is undecided who or when they will play in that quarterfinal, Canada will likely finish No. 2 in Group A behind Brazil, with a 2-1 record and -2 point differential, meaning they will likely play the other second-placed team in either Group B or C. For more on the competition system, see below.