Canada outlasts Mexico to move on to AmeriCup Semi Final

Team Canada has never won gold at the FIBA AmeriCup, the last time they won silver was 1999, and the last time they won bronze was 2015. Coming into the tournament with a young and inexperienced roster — including a head coach who made his debut atop the senior team earlier this summer — nobody expected Canada to find their way onto the podium in Brazil, being ranked seventh in FIBA’s power rankings coming into the tournament. 

Yet here they are. After defeating Team Mexico 82-77 in Thursday’s Quarter Final, Canada will get a chance to play for a medal on Sunday no matter how their Semi Final shakes out. Not that they are settling for bronze or anything. Canada has a real chance to go all the way, and they proved it by edging out the fifth-ranked Mexicans with a mature team-win on Thursday, getting better and learning more about themselves as the tournament goes on. 

Canada started Lloyd Pandi in place of Thomas Kennedy against Mexico, not because Kennedy has underperformed — if anything he has been Canada’s most consistent big man throughout the tournament — but because Canada has found success playing smaller lineups, with only one big man on the floor surrounded by more mobile guards and wings. The new starting lineup allowed Canada to stagger starting center Kalif Young and Kennedy throughout the game.  

“I think it helped us apply more ball pressure, gave us more spacing. And obviously the advantage of having this guy — Dalano Banton — who can play one through four, being 6-foot-9, kind of helps with his rebounding ability as well,” Team Canada head coach Nathaniel Mitchell told me about what he liked about the smaller lineups. “And then I thought Lloyd Pandi, at 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-5, he rebounds the ball, he makes tough plays, he grits it out. It really helps.”

“I think our guards are tough. They’re tough and it really makes up for some of the size. I don’t think it could happen all the time. Depending on the opponent I think there’s points in the game where you have to pick and choose, but going that way today really helped us.”

Pandi was great in that starting role, scoring 11-points on 4/6 shooting and boxing out bigger players. He has been a game changer in this tournament, carving out a role as the tournament has gone on and, as Mitchell alluded to, allowing Canada to play smaller lineups without sacrificing too much on the boards or interior defence.

Trae Bell-Haynes and Javhon Henry-Blair thrived with the increased spacing those lineups provided, combining for 24-points (5/10 from three), 11 rebounds and 8 assists. And Young and Kennedy each had more space to work with under the basket, combining for 12-points and 8 rebounds. Young had his best game of the tournament, bringing energy and toughness from the start and finishing with much more intention at the rim, finishing with a game-high +16. 

But it was Toronto Raptor guard Dalano Banton who was once again the best player on the floor for the Canadians. After a slow first half, where Banton scored just 3-points, Banton finished the game with 16-points, 4 rebounds, 7 assists, and 2 steals. After Canada went down 57-56 with 7:56 left in the fourth quarter, Banton scored or assisted on 7 of their next 9 points, giving them a lead they would not relinquish.

“My teammates continue to push me whether I have 3 points or 20 points so throughout the halftime, throughout the third quarter, they just continue telling me to turn it on and just keep going, keep shooting, do what I have to do in order to get myself going,” Banton says of how he has been able to get better as the game goes along. “They continue to look for me. They continue to trust me when I shoot it or if I decide to make a play, or if I make a bad play, they’ll continue to trust me to do it again. So there’s having that trust from your teammates and your coaches, it allows you to do good things.”

Banton has been a revelation for Team Canada in the tournament and is the biggest reason they they have a legitimate chance of finishing on the podium. He leads the Canadians in points (18.5), rebounds (6.3) and assists (4.8) after four AmeriCup games. And while some people might have expected that kinda production from the only NBA player on the team, Banton is just 22 years old and making his Team Canada debut in this tournament, and the list of players that young with that little experience dominating a high-level international basketball tournament is very, very short.

“For me, just to be able to represent my country for the first time, I always wanted to do that,” Banton said about his intentions with the AmeriCup. “Just being able to get a lot of reps in. A lot of game reps. Taking away [what I’ve been working on in] workouts and trying to translate it into the game. And playing against high level competition is great anytime you can and being able to push yourself and play with guys who trust me, play with guys who expect me to try and lead so it’s a different role here and I’m accepting of that and I’m playing it…”

“Hopefully I continue to play FIBA and continue to play with Canada. So it’s a great first experience and hopefully I continue to learn.”

Part of having such a big role is having to make more decisions with the ball in your hands, especially down the stretch of games. And if there is one area of Banton’s game that you can quibble with both in this tournament and earlier this summer in NBA Summer League — an area he needs to improve on in order to carve out a role on the Raptors — it’s his decision-making and turnovers. Banton had 4 turnovers against the Mexicans, and it almost cost them in a game that was neck-and-neck throughout. But after the game, Mitchell — who is also an assistant coach with the Raptors — noted that Banton acknowledged his turnover problem and talked about why Banton is in Brazil in the first place. 

“He made the right play [throughout]. He had seven assists tonight. And he told me about cleaning up some of his turnovers and stuff like that. So it’s a learning process. He’s a young player. We’re going to keep growing through it,” Mitchell said. “The best thing to do while you’re learning and making mistakes is win. So hopefully we can keep growing and I thought he did a really good job tonight.”

Canada has now overcome three fourth-quarter deficits in a row, winning all of their games in comeback fashion. They will want to avoid putting themselves in that same position against Brazil, who they will face for the second time on Saturday, this time in the Semi Final.

While Brazil won the opener 72-63, the game was closer than the score dictates, as Canada was visibly shaken out of the gate by Brazil’s home crowd, a huge advantage in this tournament. Plus, Canada shot just 3/28 from three in the game, many of them wide open looks. Considering that since then Canada has figured out how to play smaller lineups and improved their energy and focus levels, they have a very real chance of overcoming Brazil. After all, confidence is a huge factor in a quickly moving tournament like the AmeriCup, and Canada has a lot of it entering the Semi Final. 

“It was a really big win for us. We’re a team that kind of just came together [at the last minute]. So whenever we get to play together and play gelled like we did throughout the whole game, it was great for us leading into the next game just knowing that we can overcome adversity with each other and just lean on each other throughout the game,” Banton said. “We’re [still] learning the FIBA game. We’re learning the refs. So we’re just trying to continue to play the right way. And we’re gonna match the intensity, match the aggressiveness, and hopefully continue to do so.”

Canada and Brazil will play in the AmeriCup semi final at 8:40 pm local time (7:40 pm EST) on Saturday, September 10th. They will meet Team U.S.A. or Team Argentina on the other side of the bracket. 

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