Less than seven months ago — just weeks after Victor Lapena was named the new head coach of the Canadian Senior Women’s Basketball Team — Canada took on Japan in the Qualifying Tournament for the 2022 FIBA World Cup. Canada led the Japanese 40-23 at the half but fell apart in the second half, failing to protect the rim or the perimeter and getting rattled enough to turn the ball over in key moments, losing 86-79 to the Olympic silver-medalists and 8th ranked team in the world in overtime.
Canada still qualified for the World Cup due to a win over Bosnia and Herzegovina — when Bridget Carleton exploded for 28 points — and the best point differential in the group. On Sunday morning, after starting the World Cup 2-0 with wins over 10th ranked Serbia and 6th ranked France, Canada squared off against Japan in a rematch that they took personally, using it as an opportunity to show how far they have come as a team in a short period of time.
Canada beat Japan 70-56 in a game that they led from the first quarter onwards, spending 33:53 minutes with the lead. They were poised and didn’t succumb to Japan’s ball-pressure and full-court presses, controlling the game the entire way through. After going on a 20-6 run to close the first quarter up 20-12, they kept their foot on the gas pedal and stopped every Japan run with a bucket of their own. When Japan made things somewhat scary by trimming Canada’s lead to 3 with 4:17 remaining in the first half, Canada closed the half on a 13-0 run to go up 41-25 at the break. When Japan cut lead to 52-39 in the third quarter, Canada scored the next 9 points to go back up 61-39, essentially putting an exclamation mark on the win.
“That was a big game for us. Obviously we played Japan in February, we were up by a lot and they ended up forcing it to overtime and we ended up losing. So that was kind of on the back of our minds today and, again, it felt good to win,” Carleton said after the game. “That’s a tough team, they’re hard to play against, they’re fast, they like to shoot the three-ball so it’s a tough matchup but definitely good to come away with the win.”
Watching Canada rout Japan on Sunday, you would be forgiven for thinking that you were watching an entirely different Canadian team than the one that lost so dishearteningly to Japan a few short months ago. But in reality, it was almost the exact same team that this time held the Japanese to only 56 points on 32 percent shooting after they scored 86 points on 46 percent shooting last time they met; to just 10 points off turnovers and 32 points in the paint after allowing them to score 20 points off turnovers and 40 points in the paint in February.
In fact, Canada had the same five top-minutes earners in both games, with Kayla Alexander, Nathalie Achonwa, Bridget Carleton, Nirra Fields and Shay Colley playing the most. Only this time, the Canadians had seven months of being together, learning Lapena’s system and building chemistry through a number of training camps and exhibition games. And it showed.
“We’ve had time together, which is the biggest thing. We trust what Victor’s telling us, what his coaching philosophy is. We had a lot of time together. We’ve been together for over a month. So I think we’re just seeing the benefit of all the time we put in over the last four weeks,” Carleton said after the game. “And every game is a different challenge. Every single game, every team plays so differently. So being able to adjust, trusting the coaching staff and what our scouting is on the defensive end, on the offensive end, it changes every single game but we wholeheartedly believe in Victor and the coaching staff and what they want us to do and if we trust that, we trust each other, and we’re able to come out on top.”
“But yeah, I think it’s exciting to see the improvement. We’re getting used to playing with each other and how Victor wants to play, and I think it will just continue to get better.”
Plus, on top of having time to learn the system and build chemistry, Canada is benefiting from a young roster with lots of talented athletes who are still growing as players — players who had the benefit of getting significant professional or college experience in the last seven months, such as Achonwa and Carleton coming off the bench together for the Minnesota lynx and Amihere winning an NCAA National Championship with the South Carolina Gamecocks in that time.
Those internal developments have led to a slight change in the hierarchy on the team, with athletic, young players like Carleton, Amihere — who finished the game with a very Amihere stat-line of 10-6-5-3-1 — and Sami Hill — who Lapena said “When we need energy on the court, we need Sami” — getting more opportunities this time around.
“I think this group, the seven or eight of us, has had a lot of training camps together. We know how to play together. We kind of have that chemistry now that maybe you didn’t see last summer at the Olympics. I think it’s starting to all come together,” Carleton said. “We kind of have a good combination of the vets and the young kids coming up and bringing a new energy and we’re kind of finding that balance between the two in making it work on the court. It’s been fun to kind of see it all come together and a huge, obviously, credit to Victor in coming in and helping to make that work.”
Team Canada captain Nathalie Achonwa told me ahead of the tournament that that blend would be key to Canada finding their way back onto the podium for the first time since 1986, saying: “This newer generation is learning basketball in a different way. And I think the goal and the hope is that we can almost blend the two generations,” “You have us veterans that are coming from a place of experience and really knowing the game and knowing the fine details of the game. And when you meet this new generation of athletic, fearless women that are coming up — I always laugh and think about the clips of Laeticia dunking and I’m like, ‘Whoa, I wish I could do that!’”
“But kind of blending those two styles and hoping that you’re creating almost like this super generation of both knowledgeable and athletic players — I think that will continue to take our game to new heights.”
Carleton is a big part of that. The 25-year-old Lynx wing shot just 4-20 from the floor and 2-of-10 from three in the first two games of the World Cup, but exploded for a game-high 19 points on 8-14 shooting, 6 rebounds, a steal and a block against Japan. She was the key to the win and has played an instrumental role in every win this tournament, even when her shot wasn’t falling, guarding the best wings on the opposing teams — including Seattle Storm star Gabby Williams on Team France — and using her size, strength and instincts to help rebound the ball at both ends and get her hands on deflections that force turnovers that fuel Canada’s offense. Her coach was extremely complimentary of what he called the type of person the next generation should be looking up to.
“You know what is the best part of her? How she is as a person. Every day she smiles. Every day she’s talking with her teammates. Everyday, when she’s close to me: ‘hey coach how are you?’ They ask me every day, ‘how are you, Victor? And usually Bridget is the first one,” Lapena said. “And as a player I cannot say anything new. it’s obvious, no? She is one of the most important players in Canada. She is our — I don’t like to say a star, because he is not this kind of person, to say, ‘I’m the star.’ But every day she is working really hard and it’s not just the points…
“This is the kind of person I want for the team in the future. Like an example for the rest of the next generation and coming.”
Canada is happy to be 3-0 and the only team outside of the United States with a perfect record through three games. But they will not be satisfied until they find themselves on the podium.
After the win against Japan guaranteed a top-4 finish in Group B and therefore a spot in the Quarter Finals, Canada could secure a top-2 seed in the group with a win over the hosts Australia on Monday, September 26th at 6:30am EST. A top-2 finish guarantees they avoid the United States (and likely China) until the Semi Finals, which would put them in prime position for a medal.